I have over thirty years experience working in national security and emergency management. My research interests include geopolitics, domestic politics, criminology and law. I am a HDR (PhD) candidate at FedUni examining the Australian Government response to national security issues from 2001 - 2014
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The purpose of this paper is to
discuss whether crime is caused by disadvantage. This is an extremely
complicated, complex and length proposition: to answer it completely is well
beyond the scope of this paper. There are a number of criminological theories
that each has their own perspective on this subject. As a consequence, this
paper will focus on a narrower perspective of the problem based upon the
‘Broken Windows Theory’.
This theory is discussed later in the paper; however, the advantage of this
approach is that the theory is a product of ‘new right criminology’ that can be
interpreted in both a conservative and liberal perspective. There is also some
aspects of labelling and strain theories.
Furthermore, as part of this
exploration the events of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans Southern United
States will be drawn upon
which will give this discussion a ‘real’ and current perspective that will be
used to explore these criminological theories. Details of events in New Orleans
are sourced from reports of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation due to its
statutory obligations to provide unbiased reporting as
apposed to the commercial media. Nevertheless, it is acknowledged that these
reports do have some sensationalism. Further information regarding these events
will is from Time Magazine.
Before going any further it is
important to examine what is meant by disadvantage: a central point of this
paper. The dictionary definition of disadvantage is “any unfavourable
circumstance or condition” while to be disadvantaged is to be of “low …
social-economic rank or background. [To be] deprived of financial security,
educational background opportunity … as a result of discrimination.” Furthermore, disadvantage relates to being placed in
unfavourable circumstances that are normally associated with a lack of social
opportunities. In the perspective of this topic, disadvantage is closely
aligned with low socio-economic conditions. There is also a so-called cycle of
disadvantage where due to the family situation successive generations of people
are caught within the low social economic group. This has been said to have
developed with the growth of affluence, the welfare state, the wider division
between rich and poor, the availability of drugs, and the rise of absentee
Low social-economic conditions are interlinked with low intelligence which
again add to this cycle. For instance, low-social economic conditions leads to
a lack of ability for education which then leads to a lack of ability to
improve social-economic conditions.
In essence causing disadvantage.
paper is also focusing on events in New Orleans it is important to look at
manifestation of disadvantage this within United States communities. The highly
visible disadvantaged groups within that community are African-Americans who’s
average family income is less that one third that of others in the community.
Unable to obtain the jobs in industry or in domestic service that had attracted
earlier generations to cities: having formed ghetto, residents became trapped
in economically depressed urban areas that offered few opportunities for upward
or outward mobility. There has also been an increasing number of inner-city African-Americans
are experiencing the disintegration of the family unit and a decline in job
above, the ‘broken windows’ theory will be used to contrast the new right
approaches of conservatives and liberalism. The theory has its foundation in a
paper written by James Wilson and George Kelling in 1982: the subtitle of the
article is ‘The police and neighborhood safety’. The basis of the theory is
that crime and disorder are inextricably linked and that unattended and uncared
for property will be subject of damage. “[I]f a window in a building is broken
and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon also be broken.”
It is the communal barriers which prevent crime from occurring: once these
communal barriers breakdown the crime will generally become acceptable. This
point was dramatically illustrated in William Golding’s twentieth-century
classic story Lord of the Fliesand was dramatically brought to life in Lewis Allen and Peter Newman’s 1990
movie of the same name.
Here a group of private school students – from an English public school in the
book and a United States military school in the movie – slowly and very quickly
descent in anarchy – and subsequent violence – when the social norms of their
school break down after being marooned on an island.
to the Broken Windows theory once these social norms in an area have broken
down the area then becomes vulnerable to criminalisation. It is the
disadvantaged – those of lower socio-economic position – who are unable to
leave the area.
In an interpretative perspective it seems that this theory is suggesting that
it is the condition of the community and the subsequent breaking down of
communal norms that causes crime rather than the presence of disadvantage.
However, it is also possible to suggest that it is the disadvantage which makes
such communities more vulnerable to such a break down.
liberal approach the causes of the activities listed above is that it is the
product of rational choices that involve the evaluations of the advantages and
the disadvantages. The criminal is fully responsible for their actions.
In this instance, the causes of this break down in social norms is caused by a
rational choice that there is no ownership of the property and hence the
disadvantages of damaging it – of breaking a window – are minimal. There is
also an availability of such items.
On the other hand, from the conservative perspective, crime is caused by a lack
of self-discipline: an undermining of traditional loyalties and a lack of
respect for authority. The offender is inherently flawed.
This is the characterised by the Jack character’s rebellion against the school
norms and the authority of the Ralph character in Lord of the Flies. In respect to this perspective the windows are
smashed because the offenders have no respect for the property – as no-one
shows ownership of it - and no self discipline. It is out of this
interpretation of broken windowsthat
the ‘zero tolerance’ policing model evolved – first in New York – where it is
argued that to stop wider crime and disorder a zero-tolerance approach is taken
and people are prosecuted even for small offences.
This is part of the conservative emphasis on harsher penalties to enforce the
conservative perspective, disadvantage is subordinate to the need to preserve
the moral order; however, it is still relevant. Due to the focus on moral
issues criminalisation of activities of the disadvantage – in an effort to
improve the social order – which is not necessarily deliberate. When it comes
to evaluating the impact of disadvantage it is liberalism which is more direct.
Part of the ways liberalism sees to combat crime is through the lessoning of
government regulation and control over individual lives. Consequently this
results in the decriminalisation of ‘victimless’ crimes such as prostitution –
as apposed to the criminalisation of this activity by conservatives – focusing
on instances where people come to harm.
Therefore the decriminalisation of ‘moral wrongs’ in the liberal perspective
also lessens criminality as it relates to the activities of the disadvantaged.
interesting quandrum is whether being disadvantaged in some respects makes the
actions of the person concerned be seen as criminal. This is where labelling
theory can be useful. Labelling theory sees crime as a construct of those with
the power to label a particular action as being criminal. This labelling has a
psychological effect on those who’s actions are labelled as criminal or deviant
in that they are effected by the stigma of the label which effects their
With respect to disadvantaged people their can be an over focusing on their
behaviour as being criminal because of the manner in which they carry out their
lives: mainly within the public domain. Therefore, there is an arguable
interplay between the conservative rightwing approach to criminalisation of
‘moral wrongs’ with the subsequent consequences of convictions of those
offences. In my experience in law enforcement I have seen may young people from
disadvantaged backgrounds quickly descend into criminal activity once convicted
of ‘moral wrongs’ or victimless crimes such as drug possession.
illustration of this, I will now briefly deal with the case of the Saints and
the Roughnecks . This was a study conducted by William Chambliss at a United
States high school. Both groups engaged in an equal amount of anti-social or
delinquent behaviour, however, they seen differently by the community.
The Saints were from middle class families and seen as good kids, young
leaders. The Roughnecks on the other hand, were from low-income families, had a
disadvantaged background were seen as trouble and targeted by the local police.
The difference in their activities were marked by the socio-economic advantages
– or disadvantages – their families gave them. The Saints had access to motor
vehicles and were able to ‘do their stuff’ well away from where they were
known; however, lacking transport the Roughnecks were confined to their
immediate neighbourhoods where they were known.
The local community was oblivious to the activities of the Saints while the
activities of the Roughnecks were well known and they were labelled as deviant
In latter life all but one of the Saints went on to professional careers while
two members of the Roughnecks subsequently would be convicted of murder.
Another two Roughnecks received college scholarships because of their sporting
ability and graduated becoming teachers. The interesting point is that the two
Roughneck teachers moved out of a disadvantaged position - because of their
scholarships – and were able to throw off their deviant label.
New Orleans is located on the
Mississippi River and is a major port on that river. It is the major city –
previously the capital under Spanish and British rule - of the southern United
States state of Louisiana. New Orleans was acquired by the United States as
part of the Louisiana Purchase when about 2,100,000 sq km of North America
purchased France in 1803.It has a thriving cultural life
including Jazz festivals and the annual Mardi Gras. New Orleans has a population of 444515
according to the 2004 United States Census. Of its population 54 percent of the
population – compared with around 27% nationally - have an income below the
national average of (US)$44000. The unemployment is 11.8% compared with 7.2%
nationally and 18% of those over 25 years have less than ninth grade education
compared with 9.3% nationally.
Indicating that New Orleans has an over representation of the disadvantaged.
Cities the size of New Orleans
violent and property crimes decreased in 2004 compared with 2003 according to
the FBI Uniform Crimes Reports. However, although crime in both categories in
New Orleans did decrease it was not to the same extent nationally. What is
significant is that the decrease in violent crime was -2.86% compared with
-3.4% nationally (-0.66% compared with -3.5% for property crime).
What can be seen from these figures is that New Orleans is following the
national trend in a reduction in crime -more so for violent rather than property crime – however, it is in line
with national trends.
As with the majority of
jurisdictions throughout the United States, New Orleans law enforcement
agencies pursue a zero tolerance policy of strict enforcement. This follows the
conservative perspective of the offender being inherently flawed.
In the perspective of the focus of this paper on the association between
disadvantage and crime an interesting – however also tragic – event recently
occurred in this region: Hurricane Katrina. Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans
around 1 September 2005, causing the levy banks around the sub-sea level city
to fail and the city was inundated with sea water. The city was evacuated
before this occurred, however, thousands remained – the less mobile, the poor,
elderly and sick – who would reasonable be described as disadvantaged. The
evacuations and disaster relief effort are not subject to this paper – it is
the chaos in the streets which does.
After Katrina New Orleans
reportedly quickly descending in to a Lord
of the Flies style anarchy. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
states that the first 72 hours after a disaster is crucial to prevent chaos and
lawlessness. During this period victims need to received supplies – food,
water, ice and medication – that did not occur in this case.
Looting, shootings and general anti-social behaviour began to be reported
especially around the Superdome and Convention Centre where the disadvantaged
of the city had taken shelter. After shooting occurred at a military helicopter
the New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin ordered police to stop rescue operations and
begin to ‘fight crime.’
This was further expressed in President Bush’s statement “I think there ought
to be zero tolerance of people breaking law during an emergency such as this,
whether it be looting … It is very important for the citizens in all affected
areas to take personal responsibility and assume a civic sense of responsibility
so that the situation don’t get out of hand…”This is a classic conservative new right
approach and was directly targeted at the disadvantaged – whose disadvantage
had increased after the disaster due to the lack of services –
remain in the city.
As previously explained the new
right conservatives see crime as that which violates both the law and morality
while liberals focus on the violation of the natural order.
Both focus on the protection of private property. Those involved in the
‘looting’ of New Orleans are most notably made up of the disadvantaged people
left behind by the evacuation. It is true that there was some looting of
valuable items; however, a review of media footage shows that the majority of
the premises looted were in initially shops which stocked essential supplies -
food, water, clothing shelter etc – rather than for personal gain.
It would seam illogical as such to take more that is required for survival as
these people were ‘trapped’ and could not take advantage of such items.
However, it did show a disregard for private property.
Furthermore, the labelling of
criminality was important. There are cases where people from disadvantaged
background – notable African-Americans - were labelled by the media as looters
whilst other where labelled as ‘finding’ the items and therefore not criminal.
After a period of time this activity moved to general destruction of symbols of
wealth and the establishment. Those left behind also turned on each other and
rescuers. This was a classic Lord of the Flies scenario but it wasn’t as such
from the beginning before the lack of emergency response became evident and
authorities focused on zero-tolerance law enforcement rather than rescue. What
this shows is that in certain situations disadvantage – especially extreme
disadvantage such as a disaster – along with increase opportunity
can cause crime as it is defined by the new right criminologists. However, this
is also partly due to the constraints and lack of community caused by the
zero-tolerance interpretation of broken windows and there is also the labelling
of activities as criminal.
In this paper the connection
between disadvantage and crime has been explored, this exploration was based
upon the Broken Windows Theory. Through the examples of the Roughnecks and
Saints and more recently events of Hurricane Katrina have shown that
criminality can be linked to disadvantage, however, it is the disadvantage
which leads to people being labelled as criminal rather than necessarily their
disadvantage causing them to be criminal. Furthermore, it appears that communal
breakdown – rather than disadvantage – may be the cause of crime. Such break
downs, however occurs more likely in disadvantaged areas. There is also the
possibility that some law enforcement activity towards the disadvantaged –
especially zero tolerance – can cause a criminal backlash. Therefore, it is
reasonable to conclude that there is a correlation between disadvantage and
crime but not necessarily a causational one.
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