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Minority youth comprise about two-thirds of the juvenile detention population, yet account for about one-third of the United States population (Hsia, Bridges, & McHale, 2004; Mallett & Stoddard-Dare, 2010). Compared to white youth, African American youth are 6 times more likely to experience a secure facility placement (Mallett & Stoddard-Dare, 2010). There is substantial evidence of widespread disparity in juvenile case processing as data available for most jurisdictions across the country show that minority (especially African American) youth are overrepresented within the juvenile justice system, particularly in secure facilities (Bilchik, 1999). The racial and ethnic disparity in the confinement of juvenile offenders is evident in the most recent statistics available.
The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act was passed by Congress in 1974, resulting in creation of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), which was to provide oversight to the modern juvenile justice system (Soler & Garry, 2009). Included in this oversight was research into various policies and practices in local juvenile justice systems. The Coalition for Juvenile Justice brought disproportionate minority contact (DMC) to national attention in 1988 by focusing on the problem of DMC in its annual report to Congress (Soler & Garry, 2009). Initially, researchers investigating minority overrepresentation in the juvenile justice system focused solely on confinement (Piquero, 2008). In 2002, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act broadened the concept from disproportionate minority confinement to disproportionate minority contact to take account of racial differences at all stages of the juvenile justice process (Piquero, 2008).
The widespread nature of disproportionate minority contact in the juvenile justice system can partly be explained as resulting from policies and practices which have been found to disproportionately impact minority youth, such as status offenses. Curfew violations, liquor law violations, and truancy are a category of behaviors –status offenses—that are illegal based solely on the age of the offender (Ghandnoosh, 2014). In 2011, compared to white youth, African American youth were 269 percent more likely to be arrested for violating curfew laws (Ghandnoosh, 2014). The disparate treatment of African American youth charged with status offenses is illustrated in data included in the Juvenile Court Statistics (2010). The reports findings show that between 1995-2010 there was a 6% decrease in status offenses for White youth compared to a 7% increase for African Americans, 8% for American Indians, and 26% for Asians (Juvenile Court Statistics, 2010). Between 1995 and 2006 there was 55% increase in runaway cases for African American youth while the same rate for white youth fell 30% (Juvenile Court Statistics, 2010).
One theoretical perspective put forth to explain the problem of disproportionate minority contact is Critical Race Theory (CRT). The origins of Critical Race Theory grew out of critical legal studies which critiques how law is used to maintain unjust power relations while masking injustices (Sleeter, 2012). Critical Race Theory emerged as scholars in legal studies began to examine the role of the law in maintaining unequal race relations and the intransigence of racism within the landscape of the United States following the Civil Rights Movement (Sleeter, 2012). Critical Race Theory has been widely used by scholars to account for the role of race and racism in higher U. S. education, in which the permanence of race is often shown through storytelling methods. However, this paper will particularly focus on one central tenet of Critical Race Theory, the centrality of race and racism in our society. This includes examining how racism is deeply ingrained in society (institutional racism) in addition to examining the impact conscious and implicit bias has on the prevalence of racial disparities in regards to minority contact with the juvenile justice system. This includes contact throughout all stages of the youths involvement with the justice system, not just corrections. The state of empirical evidence supporting Critical Race Theory is evident in statistics showing racial disparities in research measuring bias.
Derrick Bell, a well known contributor to Critical Race Theory, strongly argues that racism is not aberrant in American society and that racism serves as a stabilizing function in American society, in particular he advanced what he called “interest convergence theory,” which holds that whites will support minority rights only when it’s in their interest as well (Delgado & Stefancic, 2007). Critical Race Theory uses an analytical lens in examining existing power structures and identifies that these power structures are based on white privilege and white supremacy, which perpetuates the marginalization of people of color.
“Of particular importance, it has provided a conceptual and theoretical basis from which to understand the extent to which race is not only socially but legally constructed, how racial subordination is not merely aberrational but a structured part of social relations, and how legal rules and doctrines—even those designed for antidiscrimination purposes—often produce outcomes that systemically disfavor racial minorities.” (Obasogie, 2013).
In agreement with Critical Race Theory is Michelle Alexander’s argument that racism is engrained in the fabric and system of American society. The underlying assumption of Critical Race Theory is that white privilege and white supremacy is so thoroughly ingrained into the fabric of society, that traditional approaches to combat racism against African Americans are not enough.
Michelle Alexander argues in her book The New Jim Crow, that mass incarceration is America’s current form of social control. Alexander’s argument in grounded in Critical Race Theory, through maintaining that the mass incarceration of African Americans is not an accident or solely a response lawbreaking (Capers, 2014). Understanding Alexander’s argument in how the United States operates as a racial caste system in place against African Americans provides fruitful insight into understanding the nature and prevalence of DMC. In The New Jim Crow, she discusses the overarching inequalities that persist as a result of the mass incarceration of minorities while also discussing institutional racism and the idea of colorblindness as they relate to the system at large. “In the system of mass incarceration, a wide variety of laws, institutions, and practices—ranging from racial profiling to biased sentencing policies, political disenfranchisement, and legalized employment discrimination—trap African Americans in a virtual (and literal) cage” (Alexander, 2012, p. 184). Understanding how our current system of mass incarceration effectively creates a second class citizenship, is seen through a set of structural arrangements that locks a racially distinct group into a subordinate political, social, and economic position (Alexander, 2012). The system itself it structured to lock those within the system into a subordinate position (Alexander, 2012).
Racial profiling and racial sentencing are examples of unjust and biased practices which exacerbates racial disparities in the justice system by sending increasing numbers of minorities, particularly African American males behind bars (Alexander, 2012). A detailed look at traffic stop data indicates that bias plays a key role in disparities among minorities (Ghandnoosh, 2014). The vast racial differences in outcomes of traffic stops have been uncovered in nationwide surveys. For example, once pulled over, African Americans and Hispanics were 3 times more likely as whites to be searched and African Americans were twice as likely to be arrested during a traffic stop (Ghandnoosh, 2014).
Institutional racism, also known as systemic or structural racism is any type of racist discrimination occurring within institutions such as government institutions, schools, and businesses. Beginning with the Constitution, we have used the institution of law as a means for legitimizing inequality and racial subordination throughout United Stated history (Alexander, 2012; Chambers, 2010). An example of how widespread institutional racism is evident while looking at law as an institution in how law is used to maintain inequality as seen historically in Jim Crow laws (Alexander, 2012; Chambers, 2010). Institutional racism occurs when privilege based on race becomes institutionalized and when discriminatory practices are embedded in the norms and rules of society’s social structures (Chambers, 2010). Furthermore, Chambers argues that law is the ultimate institution in U.S. society, as he argues there is no better way to ensure racial stratification than to codify it into law. Attention is drawn to the significance of the term “predominantly white institution” though a lens of Critical Race Theory to signify the extent to which whiteness is embedded throughout interconnected organization practices, including student enrollment and academic achievement.
There has been mixed findings in the literature on racial discrimination (i.e., disproportionate minority contact) in juvenile justice proceedings (Higgins et al., 2013). Some research has shown racial and ethnic biases to be more pronounced at the intake portion of the juvenile justice process (Leiber, Bishop, & Chamlin, 2011) and others have shown racial and ethnic biases existed front-end and back-end of the processes (Rodriguez, 2010).
Conscious and unconscious biases are allowed to flourish in the courtroom environment by immunizing prosecutors from claims of racial bias and failing to impose any meaningful check on the exercise of their discretion in charging, pleas bargaining, transferring cases, and sentencing (Alexander, 2012). It has been demonstrated in numerous studies that prosecutors interpret and respond to identical criminal activity differently based on the race of the offender (Alexander, 2012). Implicit racial bias describes the cognitive processes in which people automatically classify information in racially biased ways, despite their best intentions not to (Smith & Levinson).
Despite the polices denial that they engage in racial profiling, looking at racially biased police discretion is key to understanding how the overwhelming majority of people swept into the criminal justice system from the War on Drugs is African American (Alexander, 2012). The discretion police have in the drug war include whom to target (which individuals), as well as where to target (which neighborhoods or communities).
Routine encounters of minorities in stop and frisk operations serve as the gateway into the criminal justice system (Alexander, 2012; Goel, Rao, & Shroff, 2016).
Pedestrian stop and frisk searchers have been the subject of study and controversy as New York Police Department released statistics in 2007 showing the vast majority of those stopped and searched were racial minorities, particularly more than half being African Americans (Alexander, 2012). One study examines the racial disparities of stop and frisk policies by challenging the controversial police tactics (Goel et al., 2016). For example, it was found in a report by the New York Times that the highest concentration of stops in the city was roughly an 8 block area that was predominately black. Residents in this area were stopped at a rate thirteen times the city average (Goel et al., 2016). The NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program can be explained using the critical race theory by looking at the legal contexts and how this policy is enforced, therefore creating inequality
Prior research has received critiques surrounding methodology used in measuring the presence of racial and ethnic bias in different stages of the juvenile justice process (Higgins et al., 2013; Leiber et al., 2011; Rodriguez, 2010). In particular, researchers using multivariate statistical techniques to control for the sample elements may be ineffective and prone to statistical bias (Higgins et al., 2013). The racial differences in receiving a petition were explored in this study through propensity score matching techniques (Higgins et al., 2013). The link between race with the proceedings of the juvenile justice process has been evident in the literature as research has progressed over time (Higgins et al., 2013). For example, empirical studies from the 1970s to the late 1980s consistently found African American youths received harsher and severe punishments than white youths (Higgins et al., 2013). Some researchers have also showed that white youth were more likely to be adjudicated and receive pretrial detention than minority youth (Higgins et al., 2013).
Rodriguez conducted a comprehensive assessment of minority youth overrepresentation in one juvenile justice system through examining the influence of race and ethnicity at the diversion, petition, detention, adjudication, and disposition stages (2010). The critical role of preadjudication detention and the possible cumulative effects of race and ethnicity in court outcomes must take into account the overrepresentation of minority youth in the juvenile justice system (Rodriguez, 2010). One study seeked to obtain a purer estimate of the influence race has on the decision to petition a case to juvenile court (Higgins et al., 2013). Findings of this study examining the influence of race on incarceration decisions found African Americans were more likely than whites to have their case petitioned to a juvenile court (Higgins et al., 2013).
One particular study has been conducted on how such practices in prosecutorial decision making may contribute to racial disparities within the justice system (United States Sentencing Commission, 1991). For example, it was found in a 1991 study of federal mandatory sentencing conducted by the U.S. Sentencing Commission that prosecutors were more likely to offer White defendants a negotiated plea below the mandatory minimum than African Americans or Latino defendants (United States Sentencing Commission, 1991).
While explaining the birth of Jim Crow, Alexander argues that following the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S Constitution which had abolished slavery remained one exception: slavery remained appropriate as punishment for a crime (Alexander, 2012). Alexander explains how the War on Drugs has been the largest contributor to the systematic mass incarceration of African Americans in the United States. Black men in ghetto communities (as well as middle class communities) are targeted by the police at an early age and they are routinely stopped, frisked, and searched without reasonable suspicion or probable cause (Alexander, 2012). Whether they have committed any crime or not, a disproportionate number of African Americans are eventually arrested and branded criminals or felons for life (Alexander, 2012). Upon release, they will experience many of the old forms of discrimination that we supposedly left behind during the Jim Crow Era which are suddenly legal once you are branded a felon (Alexander, 2012). Many African American men in large urban areas have criminal records and are thus subjected to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives. The second class citizenship that many minorities, particularly African Americans, experience due to having the stigmatizing label of being a felon shows the widespread prevalence of DMC as is evident in the lifelong repercussions minorities experience due to their criminal record.
Despite the empirical evidence supporting disproportionate minority contact in the perspective of Critical Race Theory, there are many limitations and criticisms to using this theory to explain disproportionate minority contact with the juvenile justice system. Unfortunately, it is often the case that many people hold the belief that we are free of racism today in American society. People will even challenge any racist claims by noting the success of American Americans in addition to noting the significance of having an African American president.
Another theoretical perspective to explain disproportionate minority contact in the juvenile justice system is through strain theories. Strain theorists argue that in the United States, everyone is encouraged to pursuit the goals of monetary success and that some individuals are drawn to crime when they are prevented from achieving such goals through legitimate channels (Froggio, 2007). Lower class individuals may experience such an impediment to their goal and be under a great deal of strain, in which they may respond by engaging in crime, violent acts, theft, and drug selling (Froggio, 2007). Disproportionate levels of strain and injustice experienced by minorities compared to whites may result in DMC. Contributing factors which have been found to influence disproportionate levels of strain are differences in neighborhood and family contexts for minorities compared to whites, variations in motivations for engagement in criminal activity, differences in the interactions with police officers and perceptions of the police based on race.
The underlying assumption of strain theory is consistent with explaining DMC that all Americans are trying to attain a universal goal of economic success or the American dream and those in the lower class lack adequate resources to attain this goal and the pressure that this strain imposes on individuals of the lower class causes them to commit crime/ deviance. When the structural means to obtain the culturally approved goals of society are inaccessible, individuals are more likely to experience strain (Akers & Sellers, 2013; Cullen & Agnew, 2010). Not only do minority groups experience more strain, but they also lack necessary resources to cope with their strain which makes delinquent behavior more likely to be the result (Spohn & Wood, 2014).
Merton’s classic strain theory has been critiqued as being too narrow of a theory as its applicability was only limited to lower class people and they are not the only people who experience strain and inability to attain economic success is not the only type of strain. It has also been critiqued as being class-biased as the theory overemphasizes the role of social class in crime and deviance (Akers & Sellers, 2013). Agnew has extended the scope of Merton’s classic strain theory, including other sources of strain such as actual or anticipated strain.
According to Agnew’s General Strain Theory, the three major types of deviance-producing strain are: 1) the failure to achieve an individuals goals, 2) the removal of positive or desired stimuli from the individual and 3) the confrontation of the individual with negative stimuli (Akers & Sellers, 2013, p. 189). Agnew argues that strains which are more conducive to crime are those that are seen as unjust, are high in magnitude, associated with low social control, and create pressure or incentive to engage in criminal coping (Kaufman et al., 2008). Strain Theory explains DMC by focusing on the excessive strains that minorities may experience in comparison to non-minorities. Strain and anger are created in highly disadvantaged communities by blocking members’ abilities to achieve positive goals, creating a loss of positive stimuli, and exposing members to negative stimuli, and increasing overall relative deprivation (Wareham, Cochran, Dembo, & Sellers, 2005).
Minority communities have experienced a tremendous deterioration of their physical and social environments due to being in a society experiencing economic changes and technological advances (National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, 1990). Unemployment is high, job opportunities are becoming less available, and minorities continue to fall backward in educational achievement (National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, 1990). These all serve as examples of excessive strain experienced by minorities, as lack of job opportunities serves as a source of strain, as it is the removal of positively valued stimuli. The juvenile’s delinquent behavior may be a symptom of environmental problems (excessive strain) that exist in minority communities (National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, 1990).
In a study testing general strain theory and substance use among American Indian Adolescents, results provide empirical support that minorities engaging in substance use at higher rates than whites (Eitle, Eitle, & Johnson-Jennings, 2013). For example, American Indian adolescents reported not only greater levels of exposure to strains but also higher levels of negative affect (Eitle et al., 2013). Significant differences were found among American Indians in that they reported higher levels of exposure to recent life events and educational-based strains, had lower levels of school attachment and commitment and lower level of parental education in comparison to whites (Eitle et al., 2013). A study examining the simultaneous occurrence of personal strain and anticipated strain in minority adolescents from the impoverished communities of Mobile, Alabama provides results demonstrating that anticipated strain and personal strain are associated with delinquency (Jaggers et al., 2012).
African Americans are also more likely to be poor and live in concentrated disadvantaged communities due to prior historical situations and housing discrimination (Peck, 2013). Suggested as a source of strain has been residing in an economically deprived neighborhood or negative community environment (Peck, 2013). From these experiences and living environments conducive to strain, African Americans are more at risk than whites to cope through delinquency. (Peck, 2013). For example, in a study examining racial differences in early police contact, and important social environments such as family, schools, and neighborhoods, it was found that African Americans experience more strain than their white counterparts (Crutchfield, Skinner, Haggerty, McGlynn, and Catalano, 2009). Children found more likely to have interaction with law enforcement are those who come from low socioeconomic status, have experienced school disciplinary actions, have delinquent peers, and have deviant adult role models in their lives (Crutchfield et al., 2009). African American families had lower rates of income and higher rates of single headed families in comparison to whites (Crutchfield et al., 2009). Lower socioeconomic status individuals have more trouble achieving the goal of economic success or middle class status (Akers & Sellers, 2012; Agnew et al., 2008). It is suggested that minorities of low socioeconomic status living in disadvantaged neighborhoods will experience more strain as they lack adequate money and resources and will therefore suffer more strain from a weaker organizational base than higher status communities (Sampson & Groves, 1989).
Low economic status, ethnic heterogeneity, and residential instability were three factors that have ultimately led to the deterioration of social organization in a community, thereby increasing strain amongst minorities, which in turn, accounted for variations in crime and delinquency (Sampson & Groves, 1989). There is a higher probability of residential interaction resulting in explosive situations in neighborhoods with higher proportions of strained residents (Warner & Fowler, 2003). Findings of one particular study, consistent with testing key concepts of General Strain Theory, suggests that neighborhood disadvantage significantly affects neighborhood strain (Warner & Fowler, 2003). Furthermore, the neighborhoods which were found to experience higher levels of disadvantage and strain were more common amongst minorities (Warner & Fowler, 2003).
Agnew suggested that community characteristics could affect levels of strain by affecting the likelihood of residents failing to achieve positively valued goals, losing positive stimuli, and experiencing negative or aversive stimuli. Increased levels of strain lead to increased rates of negative affect, such as anger and frustration. Research has found differences in the types of strains experienced by minorities compared to whites (Kaufman et al., 2008; Peck, 2013). A nationally representative sample that includes white, black, and Hispanic adolescents was the focus of a study to assess how different types of strain and stress exposure can influence certain racial groups into committing delinquency (Peck, 2013). In addition, the study also attempts to identify if white, black, and Hispanic youth experience strains differently, and examines the potential of universally applying General Strain Theory to these racial and ethnic groups (Peck, 2013). Scales and individual questions pertaining to the respondent’s family, neighborhood, perceived discrimination (fairness), education, economic status, and prior criminal victimization was how strain was operationalized in this study (Peck, 2013). Negative emotionality was measured through an 11-item depression scale (Peck, 2013). In order to determine possible differences in experiencing strain and depression between each group, separate models for each racial and ethnic group (white, African American, and Hispanic) were estimated (Peck, 2013). Results for the effect of strain on depression found all significant strain measures to be positively related to depression, while positive and significant race effects were also found for Hispanic and African American youths compared to whites (Peck, 2013). Furthermore, results found higher levels of victimization to be more prevalent among African Americans and Hispanics in comparison to Whites (Peck, 2013).
Experiencing/living in social situations that involve poverty, academic problems, and family disruption is more common among minorities, and African Americans in particular (Peck, 2013). In addition, African Americans are also more likely to be poor and live in concentrated disadvantaged communities due to prior historical discrimination and housing discrimination (Peck, 2013). It has been argued by General Strain Theory to empirically explain the overrepresentation of minorities’ offending because certain races are exposed to disproportionate amounts and different types of strain and stressful situations (Kaufman, Rebellon, Thaxton, & Agnew, 2008; Peck, 2013).
General Strain Theory has been extended by some researchers to examine the differences in how greater exposure to certain types of serious strains may aid in explaining racial differences in criminal offending (Kaufman et al., 2008).
In one particular study, researchers argued that African Americans are more likely to experience more strain than Whites and that these strains lead to higher levels of negative emotions among African Americans (Kaufman et al., 2008). Further, it is argued that it is the unique social conditions in which many African Americans live which may disproportionately lead them to cope with strain and negative emotions through crime (Kaufman et al., 2008). Particularly, it is argued that African Americans experience more and qualitatively different types of strain than Whites and that these strains are more conducive to crime, making African Americans more likely to commit crime as a result of coping with strain (Kaufman et al., 2008). “A GST explanation of racial differences in offending instead implies that African–Americans experience disproportionate strain in the social environment and/or have fewer resources for coping with strain in conventional ways” (Kaufman et al., 2008, p. 424).
Areas of strain which are relevant to the study of disproportionate minority contact among African Americans focusing on the key characteristics associated with strain can be found by measuring economic strain, family strain, educational strain, criminal victimization, discrimination and community strain (Kaufman et al., 2008). Although the relationship between economic strain and crime is complex, it is suggested that chronic unemployment and extreme poverty contribute to greater crime (Kaufman et al., 2008). African Americans are more likely to live in high poverty areas and have higher rates of unemployment in comparison to whites. Unsteady employment and poor working conditions combined with high demands and coercive forms of control that African Americans may experience are examples of how greater economic strain may lead them to increase the likelihood of acting out against others (Kaufman et al., 2008). This may also explain the likelihood of increase in robbery, which is the crime with the highest levels of disproportionate offending by African Americans as it is an income-generating crime (Kaufman et al., 2008). Economic strain is seen to be higher in conditions where high levels of inequality exist within and between neighborhoods, therefore under such conditions crime is more likely to be generated (Kaufman et al., 2008). Many types of parental strain can lead to poor parenting practices such as harsh and inconsistent discipline thereby contributing to strain in their children (Kaufman et al., 2008). This strain may result in crime directly as juveniles commit crime or indirectly through the weakening of parental bonds (Kaufman et al., 2008). Another key area for examining African Americans greater exposure to strain and qualitatively distinct types of strain is through the educational context (Kaufman et al., 2008). Poor grades, unfair discipline, negative relations with teachers and interpersonal problems with other students are some of the problems African Americans may experience in the United States school system (Kaufman et al., 2008).
“Thus, a GST explanation of racial differences in offending suggests that African–American parents experience disproportionate strain that may impact their parenting. Such strained parents are likely to increase the probability of children experiencing various forms of strain, thus increasing the chances of delinquency” (Kaufman et al., 2008).
The underlying assumptions of General Strain Theory surrounds the deviant motivation, that is that we are all law-abiding given the chance, we break rules when we experience strain, and strain originate in our social experience.
Some research has demonstrated racial differences in reaction to strains in terms of minorities having fewer coping resources (Peck, 2013). For example, single house headed families are more common among African Americans and they often have less social support from their families (Peck, 2013). Due to the lack of legitimate coping resources that African Americans have to diffuse their stressful experiences and situations, they are more likely to turn to criminal activity as a coping mechanism (Peck, 2013).
Ryan Spohn and Spencer Wood conduct a study examining the conditioning role of race and the manner in which race influences the subjective experiences of strain. Through examining a nationally representative sample of adolescents, this study found that ethnic minorities generally experience greater strain (Spohn & Wood, 2014). However, it is suggested that the impact of strain on delinquency is conditioned by the sociocultural context of race/ ethnicity as the effect of strain is not found to be consistently more criminogenic for ethnic minorities (Spohn & Wood, 2014). The link between discrimination and strain is evident where researchers have pointed out that African Americans who feel discriminated against are subjected to more problems and thus more strain (Spohn & Wood, 2014). “Inequality, discrimination, and acculturation associated with race and ethnicity are unique processes through which race and ethnicity are predicted to condition the impact of strain on delinquency” (Spohn & Wood, 2014, p. 165).
General Strain Theories applied in research to minority groups has found that experiencing racial discrimination (slurs, threats, disrespectful treatment, and the like) is related to delinquency among black males, especially when such treatment leads to negative emotions such as anger or depression (Akers & Sellers, 2013). Overall, findings suggest that disproportionate minority contact is a result of disproportionate levels of strain and injustice experienced by minorities compared to whites.
Cultural competency training is a promising policy implication for Critical Race Theory in regards to reducing disproportionate minority contact. Such training would be beneficial to all juvenile justice decision makers, as this training brings awareness to the ways in which racial stereotyping and decision making bias perpetuates disparities (Cabaniss et al., 2007). In addition, cultural competency training should also be incorporated into police officer training to raise awareness about disproportionate minority contact of the youth they will likely interact with in their communities (Cabaniss et al., 2007). Cultural competency training has been implemented in various counties and has been effective in heightening the awareness of the problems of disproportionate minority contact (Cabaniss et al., 2007; Hoytt et al., 2002). For instance, Sacramento County assessed the juvenile justice systems overall understanding of racial, ethnic, and cultural differences through development of a “cultural audit” survey and used these findings as the basis for cultural diversity training (Cabaniss et al., 2007; Hoytt et al., 2002). It had been reported by more than 90% of participants that they believed diversity training had increased their awareness of intercultural communication issues (Cabaniss et al., 2007; Hoytt et al., 2002). Many youth have been diverted from referral to juvenile detention resulting from training officers early in recognizing the issues surrounding disproportionate minority contact (Hoytt et al., 2002). Proponents of Critical Race Theory would be in agreement that the institutional racism is so deeply embedded in American society by certain practices and policies which exacerbate racial disparities in the justice system. For example, policy implications should address policies which have been found to disproportionately affect minorities such as stop and frisk policies and drug law policies.
In regards to policy recommendations for General Strain Theory, Agnew has proposed several different programs to reduce delinquency through focusing on the root of strain theory, which is negative treatment by others (Agnew, 1995). Family based programs are promising at reducing the amount of negative emotions that result from conflict in the family and will decrease the amount of strain in the home as they are designed to teach the members how to solve problems in a constructive manner, and parent are taught how to effectively discipline their children (Agnew, 1995). School-based programs seek to improve relations in and between school, as school is a source of strain for many adolescents (Agnew, 1995). It is suggested that policies must also instruct adolescents to cope with strain, as it in unrealistic to possibly completely eliminate strain (Agnew, 1995). In assisting the adolescent in dealing with particular problems should be increased social support including behavioral, emotional, and cognitive support (Agnew, 1995). These types of program focus on teaching the adolescent to be assertive rather than aggressive (Agnew, 1995). In addition, anger management programs are effective at teaching the individual how to effectively cope with the emotions that result from strain (Agnew, 1995).
Regarding policy implications of strain theories, Agnew notes the compatibility of restorative justice with the theory (Akers & Sellers, 2013). Agnew identified the most promising prevention programs to be those which focus on the family in addition to including in-school, peer, and individual interventions (Akers & Sellers, 2013). Included in family and school interventions, Agnew advocates to provide social skills training youth, to increase adolescent’s coping ability in a non-delinquent way through anger and stress management (Akers & Sellers, 2013). As strain theory posits that individuals respond to strain through negative emotions, such as anger and frustration are likely to result in deviant coping by individuals, effective policy implications would include focusing on the root cause of the strain. Restorative practices are meant to repair harm caused by deviance, thus suggesting restorative practices to be effective in addressing the individuals needs and helping them cope in an appropriate manner. For example, restorative justice seems promising in reducing the perceived injustice of sanctions by giving offenders more voice in the proceedings, which should directly reduce strain resulting from injustice. Restorative justice can be a promising approach for adolescents to reduce strain, if appropriately applied.
2. Many researchers have noted the focus of mainstream criminology utilizing gender as a control variable, ignoring the different pathways to crime followed by females and males (Sharp & Hefley, 2007). The overall “malestream” nature of criminology has been challenged by feminism by highlighting the repeated omission and/or misrepresentation of women in criminological enquiry (Messerschmidt, 1993). Messerschmidt argues feminism has resulted in increased attention to women in criminological theory and research that little or no impact of gender on men is discussed as criminology speaks of exclusively women when gender is addressed (Messerschmidt, 1993). Messerschmitt argues that feminist theories are unsuccessful in explaining crime and gender for male offenders. Messerschmidt hypothesizes that criminal behavior can be used as a resource when other resources are not available for accomplishing masculinity (Krienert, 2003).To structure a comprehensive feminist theory of gendered crime, the gendered content of men’s behavior and crime must be brought into the framework (Messerschmidt, 1993). This approach focuses on a sociology of masculinity to comprehend why men are disproportionately involved in crime and why they commit different types of crime (Messerschmidt, 1993). How class, race, and gender relations are part of all social existence must be comprehended to understand crime by men (Messerschmidt, 1993). Messerschmidt argues that criminal behavior is influenced by gender, class, race and social structure and these factors may vary based on an offender’s gender. In particular, he argues that lower class males commit crimes (of violence) as a result of their powerlessness, in order to establish and gain control of their masculinity from society. In addition, he argues criminality of women results from their powerlessness. Furthermore, the result of patriarchy and male power can be seen in corporate crimes and sexual crimes against women.
When women were considered, they were considered in relation to men and discussions of these relations rarely focused on the prior victimization that many women endured (Chesney-Lind & Morash, 2013). A cornerstone of feminist criminology is the recognition of women’s and girl’s variation in experiences based on race, gender, and other differences (Chesney-Lind & Morash, 2013). Chesney-Lind focuses attention on the role of victimization experiences, particularly the role of sexual abuse, often within the family, as a particularly critical and uniquely gendered background factor that helps to explain girls involvement in delinquency (Giordano, Deines, & Cernkovich, 2006). Much research on girls’ and women’s unique pathways into illegal activity and institutions of control and on the high prevalence of victimization among women offenders has followed the recognition by feminist criminologists that many girls get entangled in the justice system after trying to escape victimization (Chesney-Lind & Morash, 2013). Chesney-Lind suggests that status offenses (such as running away) that bring girls to the attention of the juvenile justice system often relate directly to those abused experiences through a sequence that often flows from victimization (Giordano et al., 2006). For example, girls would run away from a sexually abuse parent, get arrested for running or for “survival crime,” and then become criminalized by the system (Chesney-Lind & Morash, 2013). Meda Chesney-Lind and Lisa Pasko (2004) argue that girls’ troubles create and set the stage for girls’ and ultimately womens’ crime. “Girls’ pathways into crime, even into violence, are affected by the gendered nature of their environments and particularly their experiences as marginalized girls in communities racked by poverty (Chesney-Lind & Pasko, 2004, p. 172). The link between childhood victimization (both physical and sexual) and escaping abuse has become clear as it has been found that females are likely to escape abuse by running away (Chesney-Lind & Pasko, 2004). However, despite nearly three decades of efforts to deinstitutionalize status offenders (including runaways), we as a society continue to criminalize these females survival strategies (Chesney-Lind & Pasko, 2004).
Childhood sexual abuse is an important precursor of drug use and criminal behavior, as suggested by the feminist pathways approach (Sharp, 2008, p. 57). Research conducted on Oklahoma women prisoners found that not only is there a high prevalence of women in these studies reporting extensive histories of childhood sexual abuse, but about half of the subjects reported that their abusers were family members (Sharp, 2008). It is important to realize how traumatic childhood sexual abuse is, in and of itself, to gain better insight into the childhood experiences of these Oklahoma women prisoners. Unfortunately, adverse childhood experiences often set females up for a vicious cycle of revictimization and offending (Sharp, 2008). These abused women are often left with feeling powerless and betrayed, as the sexual victimization during childhood often leads to a lifelong feelings of being ashamed and vulnerable (Sharp, 2008). In many instances the victim’s response to abuse often leads to running away living on the streets, and often ending up in arrest (Holsinger, 2000). If not arrested for running away, females are often engaged in street survival crimes which then usually lead to arrest (Holsinger, 2000).
Interviews with young women reveal they were forced into crime in order to survive once on the streets (Giordano et al., 2006). It is very clearly shown in the interviews that the women had very little attachment to their delinquent activities (Giordano et al., 2006). “The specific nature of girls’ and womens’ crimes (especially prostitution) also provides evidence of the pervasive influence of gender inequalities of power—that is, the effects of patriarchal arrangements” (Giordano et al., 2006, p. 21). The idea that negative/ coercive relationships with males provides an important social context within which girls’ delinquency often unfolds, it is another theme highlighted within feminist theoretical frameworks (Giordano et al., 2006). This is consistent with Chesney-Lind’s feminist pathways approach, stressing the importance of females often negative relations with other males.
It is revealed in case file data that prior victimization plays an important role in both girls’ and boys’ drug use, this is consistent with prior studies that highlight the relationship between prior abuse and delinquency (Smith, Rodriguez, & Zatz). Findings show that 24 percent of girls’ files had a documented account of sexual abuse, whereas less than 3 percent of boys’ files held such accounts (Smith et al.).
First, it is important to note that women have not been entirely ignored in the study of crime and deviance. Researchers have shown a wide variety in interests while studying feminist criminology. For example, Daly and Chesney-Lind (1988) explore three areas of feminism: (1) building theories of crime and gender (2) controlling men’s violence toward women, and (3) gender equality in the criminal justice system (p. 497). Developed from the social movement of feminism, feminist criminology is a contemporary approach which utilizes a macro-level perspective, generally looking beyond the scope of individual behavior.
“Class-race-gender” and “doing gender” are the ways that sex and gender are conceptualized in feminist theory and criminology (Daly, 1997). Class-race-gender conceptualizes inequalities as intersecting, interlocking, and contingent (Daly, 1997). Linkages between ‘doing gender’ (precisely, ‘doing masculinity’) and gender relations of power has been developed by Messerschmidt (Daly, 1997). ‘Doing gender’ was applied in his analysis of crime as a resource for doing masculinity in specific social settings (Daly, 1997). Creating differences between men and women is what “doing gender” means (Messerschmidt, 1993).
Messerschmidt proposes 3 specific social structures underlying relations between men and women: the gender division of labor, gender relations of power, and sexuality (Messerschmidt, 1993). “Division of labor” encompasses social relations much broader than those of class. Examining division of labor through a theory of structured action enables us to easily grasp how class, gender, and race are produced simultaneously through social action (Messerschmidt, 1993). Messerschmidt’s structured action theory explains why men engage in different forms of crime by analyzing masculinities and understanding the socially constructed differences among men. For example, he explains how structured action theory conceptualizes “doing” sex, gender, and sexuality. It is the reciprocal relation of embodied social practices in specific social structural settings which constitutes sex, gender, and sexuality (Messerschmidt, 2014). This theory proposes that “doing” gender is due to the particular “gender and sexual relations in specific settings that give behavior its sexed, gendered, and sexual meanings” (Messerschmidt, 2014, p. 26). This means that “doing gender” is an unfinished product whereby our everyday “doing” of sex, gender, and sexuality is accomplished systematically (Messerschmidt, 2014). Thus, the construction of sex, gender, and sexuality results from specific social situations. In different social structures, the social action of “doing gender” will vary by race, age, socioeconomic status (Messerschmidt, 2014). Empirical evidence in support of Messerschmidt’s masculinity theory has been represented in a diversity of research on masculinities and crime.
In one particular study on masculinities and gang violence, Christopher Mullins (2006) puts forth an account illustrating the way hegemonic masculinity is embedded in the street life of St. Louis, Missouri. This study explores how men within specific social situations perceive certain practices of other men as threatening their masculinity, which requires a culturally supported masculine response of physical violence (Mullins, 2006). In addition, this study explored the interaction among street men and the various women in their lives, uniquely demonstrating how such men tend to construct hegemonic masculinities—masculinities that fashion power relations between men and women and among men—over women on the street (Mullins, 2006). Not only does this study provide empirical evidence supporting Messerschmidt’s theory, it also notes a critique of research on masculinities in general: the contradictions involved in masculine constructions (Mullins, 2006). Furthermore, it is illustrated how men in this study vacillate among multiple means of masculinity according to their interactional needs (Mullins, 2006).
A study examining the public drinking-related interpersonal violence by male boozers and bouncers is conducted utilizing a masculinity perspective to understand both engagement and disengagement in interpersonal violence within the context of nighttime leisurely drinking interactions (Tomsen, 1997). Through interviews with frequent young adult men drinkers (boozers) and bouncers, the research found drinking to be an important aspect of the mens lives and aggression and conflicts at nighttime were viewed at natural (Tomsen, 1997). In these drinking settings, it was found that interpersonal violence emerged from disputes brought on by some type of masculinity challenge usually through the form of an insult (Tomsen, 1997). It was expressed by the men that their participation in such violence bolstered their public masculinity, therefore violent retaliation served to enhance their public masculine image and status in addition to impressing other boozers (Tomsen, 1997). Evidence of this study suggests there to be variations in the constructions of masculinities through engagement in or disengagement from interpersonal violence (Tomsen, 1997). For instance, the marginalized boozers were found to be more inclined to retaliate in violence following insults compared to the nonmarginalized boozers and bouncers who construct more reasoned masculinities centering on disengagement from conflict and aggression (Tomsen, 1997).
A prominent example of a study examining masculinities and nonviolent street crime included interviewing 94 men under community supervision for robbery, burgularly, and motor vehicle theft (Copes & Hochstetler, 2003). It was shown through interviews that the situational context of what it means to be a man influenced decisions to engage in crime (Copes & Hochstetler, 2003). The cultural and contextual expectations of masculinity were adopted by men to guide their behavior (Copes & Hochstetler, 2003). Thus, it is demonstrated in this study how masculinity often operates as a symbolic frame for determining contextual criminal social actions (Copes & Hochstetler, 2003). “The interactions that precede many crimes are exchanges of subtle and overt social signals that remind participants of their place and expectations of manhood” (Copes & Hochstetler, 2003, p. 299).
‘Class-race-gender- emphasizes the social relations of inequality; ‘doing gender’ emphasizes the production of social categories in action (Daly, 1997). Feminist criminology may entail focusing on women as criminal offenders, women as victims of crime, and women as workers in the criminal justice system.
Several theorists have challenged mainstream theorists’ explanation of crime and delinquency due to the fact that they have ignored the significance of gender. Meda Chesney–Lind and James W. Messerschmidt are two important theorists who have contributed to criminological theories, yet they have two different views on the significance of gender in relation to crime and delinquency. Both theorists stand in agreement that gender is an important factor to examine when trying to understand crime in society.
Unfortunately, over the years there has been an increase in female offending which many believe is a result of a woman’s shifting from the home to the working society. As a result of constant change amongst society feminist theories are continuously being changed and developed in order to address the ongoing issues of gender inequality within the criminal justice system. One major argument that has remained a prominent theme amongst feminist theorists is Meda Chesney–Lind’s argument that: “the oppression of women, including their criminal victimization, is a major cause of female offending” (Cullen & Agnew 324). Chesney-Lind questions whether or not mainstream theories, which were developed based upon male offending, can adequately explain female delinquency. Likewise, Meda Chesney-Lind voices her concern about the unfair treatment of female youth and women in the criminal justice system.
It has been proven that female victims who run away from are more likely to become involved in criminal behavior in order to survive on the streets. As a result, females who are arrested fore running away or other criminal behaviors are constantly being criminalized by the criminal justice system which was established to protect the rights of individuals rather than victimize them further (Cullen & Agnew, 2011).
Messerschmidt challenges traditional, mainstream theorists in addition to feminist theorists’ explanations of crime and delinquency. He states that feminist theories place all men in the same category in which “women are good, men are bad, plain and simple. And it is this essential badness that leads to patriarchy and violence against women” (Cullen & Agnew, 2011, p. 357).
Chesney-Lind stresses the outrageous views of a patriarchal society and its effect on female offending. Patriarchal societies and families believe that the rights and privileges of men are of greater significance the rights and privileges of women. Typically, men use crime as a way to enforce power over women and society in order to remain in control.
Meda Chesney-Lind states that mainstream theories are misleading and fail to consider the harsh realities of being female (Akers & Sellers, 2013). Similarly, Messerschmidt states that society influences men to achieve masculinity in order to ensure dominance over women. Both theorists believe that society is full of patriarchal views which cause the ongoing issue of gender inequality within the workplace, society, home and legal system (Cullen & Agnew, 2011). Likewise, Meda Chesney-Lind and James W. Messerschmidt believe that males seek to achieve power and dominance over females in order to achieve masculinity. It is crucial that theorists examine how different crime may vary according to gender (Cullen & Agnew, 2011).
There has been mixed results on whether or not feminist theories accurately explain the influence of gender on criminal behavior. In order to fully understand the significance of gender on delinquency, theorist need to integrate several theories that focus on both males and females. Feminist theorists argue that females do not receive equal treatment by the system; however, some studies have concluded that females are more likely to receive more lenient sentences than male offenders even if they committed the same crime. Male offenders often times endure harsh and cruel treatment within the system which is contrary to feminist theorists’ belief.
In conclusion, feminist theorists believe that mainstream theorists fail to address explanations that lead to an understanding of female crime, the gender gap in crime and its change overtime, in addition to the role gender plays on male crime. Feminist theorists believe that patriarchy and gender are major factors which influence criminal behavior. Crime cannot truly be understood without looking into gender influence.
Criminologists have been interested in masculinity and its relationship to crime. Much work on this topic has been published, as seen in Crime as structured action: Doing masculinities, race, class, sexuality, and crime. It is the theoretical importance of the gendered nature of crime which is examined in such work regarding the criminological agenda. Crime as structured action notes that the social situation today differs from that which was previously examined by Edwin Sutherland and Albert Cohen (Messerschmidt, 2014). Sutherland and Cohen are credited with drawing attention to gender in its relationship to crime, specifically in regard to masculinity.
Through illuminating the gendered power that was once ignored, social theory now sheds light on the challenges of the masculinist nature of academia (Messerschmidt, 2014). The second wave of feminism has brought upon such challenges. In particular, feminism has moved the focus of the gendered nature of power in light of the role of sexual politics in popular culture which is deeply embedded in our everyday society. It is necessary to study not only the powerless, but the powerful as well, in order to fully understand how gender is conceptualized in terms of power relations (Messerschmidt, 2014).
Due to the dominance of male crime, criminologists have consistently advanced sex as the strongest predictor of criminal involvement which is why it is important to study gender differences in crime. In this regard, we are to gain a better understanding of crime by males on both due to the highly gendered ratio of crime by males and on an individual level.
Messerschmidt (2014) compares psychosocial theory to his structured action theory of crime, examining both theories relevance and relations to masculinities and crime. The psychosocial theory, as proposed by Jefferson and Klein, posit to explain how behavior is allegedly related to unconscious defenses against anxiety (Messerschmidt, 2014). Jefferson argues discursive choices made by individuals is the key to understanding the behavior of individuals, being “identity” which is “to be found in the defensive attempts people make to ward off anxiety, to avoid feelings of powerlessness” (Messerschmidt, 2014, p. 14). Specifically, it is argued that it is the way in which individuals choose masculine “subject positions” permitting them to protect their anxiety-driven, insecure selves (Messerschmidt, 2014).
The topic on racist lynchers looks at the structural relations of race and gender and their intersectionality on a local level during slavery. A masculine power hierarchy constructed the master-slave relation in which the white master was the representative of localized hegemonic masculinity (Messerschmidt, 2014). Both black males and females were defined as less than men and women, due to their failure of conforming to hegemonic gender ideals (Messerschmidt, 2014). Through Reconstruction, the social context was creating the alarmist ideology about the sexuality of African American males, resulting in pronounced mob violence in the public which was employed by white hegemonic supremacist men (Messerschmidt, 2014). This serves as a great example of how empirical evidence in structured action theory has applied in history on local level.
Of the two theories, structured action theory is definitely the stronger theory as it is explained more thoroughly throughout the book to explain differences in the relationship between crime and gender more so than psychosocial theory. In addition, what makes this theory the strongest is the incorporation of relations, structure, reflexivity, power, difference, and similarity and their intersectionalities with race, class, and gender (Messerschmidt, 2014).
All institutions would need to implement gender specific crime control, prevention, treatment and rehabilitation programs in order to fully address the separate needs of male and female offenders. In order to be successful, programs need to remain educated on the ongoing issue of gender inequality and focus on limiting gender stereotyping to ensure adequate treatment for all parties (Akers & Sellers, 2013).
Chesney-Lind argues programs must be scrutinized to assure that they are gender and culturally specific. Proponents of the feminist perspective suggests criminal justice policy reform is essential to correct structural and institutionalized differences that expose women to victimization.Both quantitative and qualitative data has been utilized in feminist research or gendered pathways to crime to support the claim that prior physical and sexual abuse can account for delinquency and crime among girls and women (Akers & Sellers, 2013). In sum, Chesney-Lind would strive for programs which recognize the gender differences in victimization and delinquency and argue that appropriate programs should address the underlying needs of these delinquent females which is often a result of prior victimization. She would also note the importance of understanding these females feelings of vulnerability in addition to noting their mistreatment of inequality within all institutions which oppresses and marginalizes them further.
The underlying goal regarding policy implications of feminist theories would aim to reduce gender-based disparities and inequalities in society generally and in the law and criminal justice system particularly (Akers & Sellers, 2013). One attempt the criminal justice system has made to eliminate ender and other disparities in the treatment of offenders is limiting the judge’s discretion in sentencing by sentencing guidelines (Akers & Sellers, 2013). Seeking to explain men’s greater involvement in crime as a means to accomplish masculinity, masculinities theory has been criticized as tautological and there is little evidence to support its claims (Akers & Sellers, 2013).
Unlike Meda Chesney-Lind, Messerschmitt would most likely agree with strain theorists that men commit more serious, violent crimes due to the excessive amount of strain they experience by society. For instance, he argues that middle class and lower class males have to compete and constantly prove their masculinity to society in order to achieve status. However, different social classes may achieve masculinity differently than others. Messerschmidt believes that societal factors are a major influence on an individual’s willingness to conform to a criminal lifestyle. Men seek to achieve masculinity through any means necessary and will more than likely resort to criminal behavior in order to achieve status and power within the community (Cullen & Agnew, 2011).
On the contrary to James W, Messerschmidt, most feminist theorists would not be advocates for strain theory. Strain theory argues that men have more strain then women and as a result they are more likely to act on criminal desires. Supporters of feminist theory would argue that strain theory is not a general theory of crime because it does not address gender inequality within the criminal justice system. In addition, females are more likely to be incarcerated for petty, less serious offenses in the juvenile justice system.
Efforts have been made to address gender-related issues regarding delinquency. What is meant by “moving toward justice for female juvenile offenders in the new millennium” includes states taking initiative investing in additional resources, conducting assessments to discover the problem, and implementing new policies addressing the needs of female youth (though not all states have implemented such programs).
Both Messerschmidt and Chesney-Lind’s theories can be explained by Broidy and Agnew’s gender and crime perspective applied to General Strain Theory. The two fundamental questions about gender and crime that the study applies General Strain Theory to are: 1) How can we explain the higher rates of crime among males? And 2) How can we explain why females engage in crime? (Broidy & Agnew, 1997). It is suggested that there are gender differences in types of strain and the reaction to strain, which is useful in understanding the gender gap in criminal behavior (Broidy & Agnew, 1997). In addition, under proper circumstances several types of strain may lead to female crime (Brodiy & Agnew, 1997). It has been found in the latest literature that females experience as much or more strain than males do (Broidy & Agnew, 1997). Furthermore, females may be higher in experiencing both objective and subjective strain as certain data suggests females rate strainful events as more stressful than do males (Broidy & Agnew, 1997). As demonstrated by Broidy and Agnew, gender differences in crime cannot be explained by differences in the amounts of strain, but looking at gender differences in the types of strain provides insight into gender differences in crime. It has been argued by strain theorists that males are more concerned with material success and extrinsic achievements, whereas females are more concerned with the establishment and maintenance of close relationships and meaningful purpose in life (Broidy & Agnew, 1997). Compatible with stress literature findings illustrate men report financial problems more often whereas females report network-related stressors more often and become more upset when they experience interpersonal problems (Broidy & Agnew, 1997). It is also suggested that males are more concerned about distributive justice, which is the fairness of outcomes whereas females are more concerned with procedural justice, focusing on how people involved in interactions are treated (Broidy & Agnew, 1997).
Looking at the differences in types of strain may be useful in explaining differences in crime, for example higher rates of property crime by men may be explained by their greater emphasis on material success and greater financial stress (Broidy & Agnew, 1997). Looking at gender differences in the emotional response to strain also gives useful insight into understanding gender differences in crime. For instance, the lower rates of female crime may be argued by General Strain Theory that females are more likely to respond to strain with depression rather than anger (Broidy & Agnew, 1997). In particular, because females tend to highly value relationships, they may view their anger as a response with potential harm to cause others (Broidy & Agnew, 1997). Men, however, are less concerned about disrupting relationships and often view anger as an affirmation of their masculinity (Broidy & Agnew, 1997). Lastly, looking at gender differences in coping skills suggests women are less likely to possess a sense of mastery and positive self-esteem, reducing their likelihood of effectively coping with strain (Broidy & Agnew, 1997). Further, it is argued that women are less likely to respond to strain with serious crime, as they may not have enough confidence or security to “challenge behavioral proscriptions against such behaviors for women” (Broidy & Agnew, 1997, p. 284).
6. Social learning theories explains offending, by arguing that people learn to engage in criminal behavior in much the same way that they learn to engage in other sorts of behavior (Cullen & Agnew, 2011). Social Learning theorists argue that criminal and conforming behaviors are acquired and maintained through associations with others (Cullen & Agnew, 2011).
Edwin Sutherland’s Differential Association theory was one of the first micro-level learning theories that studied the significance of delinquent associations and the impact it had on juvenile delinquency. Sutherland’s theory proposes that criminal behavior is learned through personal interactions with others who exhibit unlawful or inappropriate behavior (Cullen & Agnew, 2011). Sutherland noted that the more an individual is exposed to definitions favorable to law violation, the more likely he/she will adapt similar behavior and techniques to engage in crime (Cullen & Agnew, 2011). Sutherland’s theory of differential association is presented in the form of nine propositions which are as follows:
“1) Criminal behavior is learned. 2) Criminal behavior is learned in interaction with other persons in a process of communication. 3) The principal part of the learning of criminal behavior occurs within intimate personal groups. 4) When criminal behavior is learned, the learning includes (a) techniques of committing the crime, which are sometimes very complicated, sometimes very simple, and (b) the specific direction of motives, drives, rationalizations, and attitudes. 5) The specific direction of motives and drives is learned from definitions of the legal codes as favorable or unfavorable. 6) A person becomes delinquent because of an excess of definitions favorable to violation of law over definitions unfavorable to violation of law. 7) Differential associations may vary in frequency, duration, priority, and intensity. 8) The process of learning criminal behavior by association with criminal and anti-criminal patterns involves all of the mechanisms that are involved in any other learning. 9) Although criminal behavior is an expression of general needs and values, it is not explained by those general needs and values, because non-criminal behavior is an expression of the same needs and values” (Akers & Sellers, 2013, p. 79).
Generally, the theory states that the interaction with others, particularly intimate others such as friends and family, is how criminal behavior is learned (Cullen & Agnew, 2011). Techniques of committing crime and “definitions” (motives, drives, rationalizations, attitudes) favorable and unfavorable toward violation of the law are learned through such interaction (Cullen & Agnew, 2011).
Even though Sutherland failed to elaborate on how an individual learns specific criminal behaviors, Ronald Akers expanded upon this idea and proposed a new theory known as social learning theory. One main purpose of Akers’ Social Learning Theory is to further explain criminal and delinquent behaviors in addition to the influence peers may have on certain individuals. “The basic assumption in social learning theory is that the same learning process in a context of social structure, produces both conforming and deviant behavior. The difference lies in the direction …[of] the balance of influences on behavior” (Akers & Sellers, 2013, p. 81). Akers found that when crime is prone to a specific area or subculture, children raised in these areas have greater risks of becoming involved in delinquent behaviors (Cullen & Agnew, 2011). Several theorists have concluded that “other than one’s own prior deviant behavior, the best single predictor of the onset, or desistance of crime and delinquency is differential association with conforming or law-violating peers (Akers et al., 1979). Unfortunately, adolescents are highly influenced through other individuals and often times imitate certain unwanted acts. Similarly, social learning theorists focus on the influence an individual’s family may have on whether or not they will conform to deviant behaviors. The stronger the relationship between and individual and their family the less likely he/she will be drawn to criminal activity. However, children raised in violent homes are more likely to conform to these types of behaviors and become violent in the future. The main focus of social learning theorists is the environment in which an individual is raised in addition to family influences when determining an individual’s risk factor for delinquency and violent behaviors (Cullen & Agnew, 2011).
Differential Association Theory looks at the acts of the criminal as learned behavior. From the moment of birth we are being conditioned to the norms of society. Criminals are not inherently deviant, they learn the deviance. When an individual frequently associates with more members of a group who favor deviance, than with members of a group who favor societal norms, that individual is more inclined to act defiantly (Akers & Sellers, 2013). To learn criminal behavior is a process involving mechanisms used to learn in any other learning. Criminal behavior is not only learned through observance but through other methods as well. Attitudes, motives, and drives are three main intervening factors between crime and deviant associations in Sutherland’s Theory of Differential Association (McCarthy, 1996). However, it is also suggested that the incorporation of skills and symbolic elements are central to the process of differential association, intervening between deviant associations and crime (McCarthy, 1996).
Differential association is a theory which proposes that through interaction with others, individuals learn the values, attitudes, techniques, and motives for criminal behavior. This theory is the most talked about in regards to the learning theories of deviance. The conditions which are said to cause crime should be present when crime is present, and they should be absent when crime is absent (Akers & Sellers, 2013).
The eighth proposition of Sutherland’s theory states, “The process of learning criminal behavior by association with criminal and anti-criminal patterns involves all of the mechanisms that are involved in any other learning” (Akers & Sellers, 2013, p. 79). However, Sutherland failed to explain what the mechanisms of learning are. Burgess and Akers specified these learning mechanisms in their “differential association-reinforcement” theory of criminal behavior (Akers & Sellers, 2013). Thus, a full reformulation was produced still containing the principles of differential association but also combining them in terms of the learning principles of operant and respondent conditioning, which had been developed by behavioral psychologists (Akers & Sellers, 2013). One major criticism of the theory of differential association is Sutherland’s lack of presenting a good description of definitions favorable and unfavorable to crime (Cullen & Agnew, 2011). Differential association has also received criticism as it fails to fully describe the process by which crime is learned (Cullen & Agnew, 2011). This theory was followed up by Akers, which he then applied to criminal, delinquent, and deviant behavior in general.
Social Learning Theory can be viewed as a broader theory of differential association theory. Social Learning Theory retains all of the processes in Sutherland’s theory with some modifications, as it has been integrated with differential reinforcement as well as “other principles of behavioral acquisition, continuation, and cessation” (Akers & Sellers, 2013, p. 81). A more thorough explanation of criminal and delinquent behavior can be found in Social Learning Theory in comparison to the original differential association theory. Differential reinforcement, classical or “respondent” conditioning, discriminative stimuli, and schedules of reinforcement were still retained by Akers (Akers & Sellers, 2013, p. 81). Akers’s development of Social Learning Theory has relied principally on four major concepts: differential association, differential reinforcement, definitions, and imitation (Akers & Sellers, 2013). Differential association includes both behavioral-interactional and normative dimensions (Akers & Sellers, 2013). The direct association with others with engage in certain behaviors as well as the indirect association with more distant reference groups is the interactional dimension (Akers & Sellers, 2013). The different patterns of norms and values to which an individual is exposed through this association is the normative dimension (Akers & Sellers, 2013). Differential reinforcement describes the balance between actual and anticipated rewards or punishments that are results following behavior (Akers & Sellers, 2013). Definitions are one’s attitudes or meanings one attaches to a given behavior (Akers & Sellers, 2013). The engagement in behavior following the observation of similar behavior in others is called imitation (Akers & Sellers, 2013).
Anomie/ strain theories lean heavily on the work of Sociologist Emile Durkheim, who used the term anomie to refer to a state of normlessness or lack of social regulation in modern society as one condition that promotes higher rates of deviant behavior (Akers & Sellers, 2013). Robert Merton applied this Durkheimian approach to the condition of modern industrial societies, particularly the United States (Akers & Sellers, 2013). Merton argued the balance between social structure (approved social means) and culture (approved goals) is maintained by an integrated society (Akers & Sellers, 2013). Merton posits that when there is a dissociation between valued cultural ends and legitimate societal means to those ends, social malintegration will take the form of anomie (Akers & Sellers, 2013). Through focusing on social structure to explain why crime rates were higher among lower-class people in American rather than upper-class people, Merton explained the ability to achieve wealth through institutional means (Vold & Bernard, 1986). In basic agreement with Merton’s theory is Cohen’s version of anomie/strain theory, as both theories perceive blocked goals as producing deviance-inducing strain (Akers & Sellers, 2013). However, exposure to delinquent peers may be conditioned by the impact of goal blockage as one of the sources of strain (Agnew, 1991; Yilmaz & Gokhan, 2015). Agnew noted, after a close examination of the literature, that there was no support for the assumption that monetary success (or middle-class status) is the primary goal of adolescence (Yilmaz & Gokhan, 2015). The assumption of monetary success and middle class status as the primary goal of adolescents was revised by researchers challenging classical strain theory (Yilmaz & Gokhan, 2015). Five alternative modes of adjustment or adaptation by individuals to the societal condition of anomie were identified by Merton: conformity, innovation, rebellion, retreatism, and ritualism (Akers & Sellers, 2013). The most common response is conformity, accepting the state of affairs while continuing to strive for success within the restricted conventional means available (Akers & Sellers, 2013). The most deviant response is innovation, where commitment to success goals is maintained but takes advantage of illegitimate means to attain them (Akers & Sellers, 2013). Rebellion, another deviant mode, rejects the system altogether, replacing it with a new one, such as a violent overthrow of the system (Akers & Sellers, 2013). An escapist response, retreatism, refers to one giving up on both the goals and efforts to achieve them, becoming a societal dropout (Akers & Sellers, 2013). Finally, ritualism refers to one surrendering on trying to get ahead and adhering rigidly to the norms, retaining what little has been gained (Akers & Sellers, 2013).
Agnew seeked to expand the concept of strain “beyond that produced by the discrepancy between aspirations and expectations to encompass several sources of stress or strain” (Akers & Sellers, 2013, p. 187). According to General Strain Theory, individuals experience strains and may cope with their strains and negative emotions through crime (Agnew, 2006). Agnew’s theory posits crime and delinquency to be an adaptation to stress. Three major types of deviance-producing strain have been identified by Agnew:
- The failure to achieve an individual’s goals,
- The removal of positive or desired stimuli from the individual,
- The confrontation of the individual with negative stimuli.
(Akers & Sellers, 2013, p. 189) Agnew clearly specifies types of strain that lead to criminal or delinquent coping, these strains: 1) are seen as unjust, 2) are high in magnitude, 3) emanate from situations in which social control in undermined, and 4) pressure the individual into criminal or delinquent associations (Akers & Sellers, 2013).
While Agnew’s general strain theory represents the leading version of strain theory, the inception of strain theories trace their origins to the work of Merton and have been reformulated and extended by many theorists (Cullen & Agnew, 2011). Merton’s theory was modified by Cohen, and Cloward and Ohlin, to apply anomie to lower class delinquents (Akers & Sellers, 2013). The central argument of the classic strain theories of Merton, Cohen, and Cloward and Ohlin is that individuals are pressured into crime when they are prevented from achieving cultural goals like monetary success or middle-class status through legitimate channels (Cullen & Agnew, 2011). It has been argued by Cohen, and Cloward and Ohlin that individuals who join a delinquent subculture whose values are conducive to crime are more likely to engage in crime (Cullen & Agnew, 2011).
Everyone in our society is encouraged to pursue certain goals (particularly of monetary success) yet large segments of the population are prevented from achieving these goals through legitimate channels (Cullen & Agnew, 2011). This puts a great deal of strain or pressure on individuals experiencing such goal blockage, they may respond by engaging in crime (Cullen & Agnew, 2011).
Classic strain theories most commonly measured strain by the disjuncture between aspirations and expectations. Research did not support the prediction that people with high aspirations and low expectations to be most delinquent.
Much support has been found for social learning theory in research which measured all of the key social learning variables of differential association, differential reinforcement, definitions, and imitation (Akers & Sellers, 2013). Studies that test social learning theory by itself in addition to tests that directly compare its empirical validity with other theories have findings that demonstrate that social learning variables are strongly related to various forms of deviant, delinquent, and criminal behavior studied (Akers & Sellers, 2013). Research on social learning in the family and delinquency demonstrates abundant evidence showing the significant impact on criminal and deviant behavior of differential association among family and peers (Akers & Sellers, 2013). Differential peer association has been measured in research on peers and group contexts in crime and delinquency. Differential association with conforming or law-abiding peers, follows one’s own prior deviant behavior in being the best predictor of the onset, continuance, or desistance of crime and delinquency (Akers & Sellers, 2013).
Differential association and Social Learning Theory are usually measured by examining the relationship between delinquency and association with delinquent peers. In most studies, the association with delinquent friends emerges as the strongest correlate of delinquency (Cullen & Agnew, 2011).
Social Learning Theory is a leading explanation of delinquency, as it has much empirical support. Further confirmation on the strong empirical foundation of Social Learning Theory is demonstrated in evidence from meta-analyses utilizing 113 empirical studies (Pratt, Cullen, Sellers, Winfree, Madensen, Daigle, Fern, & Gau, 2010). A meta-analysis revealed positive effect sizes for differential association and for delinquent definitions that rivaled the effect sizes for other leading predictors of criminal involvement (Pratt et al., 2010). Overall, the indicators of the effect of differential association on crime/deviance tend to be strongest when measured as peers’ behaviors or a differential association index across empirical studies (Pratt et al., 2010). In addition, findings indicate that these measures were the most consistently significant predictors of crime/deviance in their respective models (Pratt et al., 2010). Although still statistically significant, the overall effect size of the differential reinforcement predictors was rather weak, unlike previous social learning theory predictors (Pratt et al., 2010). The results of this meta-analysis led the authors to 3 main conclusions. First, in comparison to other criminological perspectives that have been subjected to meta-analysis, the empirical support of social learning theory stacks up well (Pratt et al., 2010). Second, the differential association and definitions components have received much more empirical attention from criminologists as they have been extensively tested (Pratt et al., 2010). Third, the strongest of the predictors specified by social learning theory are consistently found to be the differential association and definitions measures (Pratt et al., 2010). Other meta-analytic studies have found/confined antisocial attitudes and antisocial peer/parental associations (variables identified by Social Learning Theory) are among the strongest predictors of offending behavior (Pratt et al., 2010).
Research utilizing data from a national sample of adolescent boys examined the relationship between delinquency and experienced, vicarious, and anticipated physical victimization (Agnew, 2002). The scope of strain theory has been dramatically expanded through examination of vicarious and anticipated strains (Agnew, 2002). Real life strain experienced by others is vicarious strain (Agnew, 2002). Anticipated strain refers to the expectation that the individual holds that his or her current strains will continue into the future or that new strains will be experienced (Agnew, 2002).
The validity of using indirect measures of peers’ deviant behaviors as an indicator of differential association has been recently challenged by scholars (Pratt et al., 2010). Respondents have been found to project their own attitudes and behaviors onto their friends, making them likely to overestimate the overall level of deviant behavior for any given peer (Pratt et al., 2010). Thus, it is possible that using indirect measures of peers deviant behaviors as a proxy for differential association could explain a portion of the effects of the differential association/ deviance relationship (Pratt et al., 2010).
Kornhauser has made the most extensive criticisms of strain theories, arguing they were artificial with a large number of theoretical and empirical problems (Vold & Bernard, 1986). Kornhauser criticized Cloward and Ohlin’s theory in terms of a gap between aspirations and expectations, delinquents want a lot but expect very little (Vold & Bernard, 1986). Through reviewing empirical research on the aspirations and expectations of delinquents, she argued evidence that delinquency is associated with both low expectations and low aspirations (Vold & Bernard, 1986). Having no gap between what delinquents want and what they expect, she maintained that such youths would not be strained (Vold & Bernard, 1986).
Between Learning and Strain theory I feel Strain theory does a better job at explaining crime more generally. In particular, I find General Strain Theory to make better sense in understanding gender differences in the amounts, types, and responses of strain individuals experience which is useful in understanding gender differences in crime. For example, it is hard to argue against a strong body of empirical evidence demonstrating men experience more financial strain which is a valid explanation in explaining the higher rate of males committing property crime. Overall, strain theories do a highly effective job at describing why individuals engage in crime from looking at it from Merton’s classic strain theory arguing generally that it is the part of achieving the American dream, and from Agnew’s more specific General Strain Theory which is particularly useful for looking at the ways particular people respond to particular strains.
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