Crime and Violence in America

Merlene_2014_Fedora_BlkWhiteThe United States is a violent society. It is thoroughly violent, even, ironically, in its response to crime (Bierne & Messerschmidt, 2000). The United States has both the highest rate of violent crime and the highest rate of incarceration of all industrial nations (Bierne & Messerschmidt, 2000). Approximately 2 million people are victimized by violent crime every year, according to Bierne & Messerschmidt (2000). Simple assault is the most common type of workforce violence with the majority of offenses against strangers (Bierne & Messerschmidt, 2000). The United States also has a higher level of interpersonal violence than any other country (Bierne & Messerschmidt, 2000). Routine activities theory shows that high crime rates have become a normal part of life in the United States (see Garland, 1999) (Bierne & Messerschmidt, 2000). Punitive control and high rates of violent crime are both symptoms of the same problem (Bierne & Messerschmidt, 2000).

High rates of violence are ignited due to excessive punitive and social control. Stricter discipline (including corporal punishment) may actually encourage delinquency (Bierne & Messerschmidt, 2000). Stricter discipline, explains the liberal critics of control theory, neither deters nor controls delinquency (Bierne & Messerschmidt, 2000). Instead, stricter discipline teaches children that physical force is the appropriate way to solve interpersonal problems (Bierne & Messerschmidt, 2000).

Durkheim identified the sociological links among crime, law, punishment, and social organization (Bierne & Messerschmidt, 2000). Durkheim demonstrated that in any given society the amount and the types of crime relate directly to the basic ways in which that society is organized (Bierne & Messerschmidt, 2000). He further stated that crime must be explained sociologically rather than in terms of an individual’s psychological state or biological nature (Bierne & Messerschmidt, 2000). Crime must be viewed in the political, social and economic environment in which it occurred. The context of the crime is critical.

High violent crime rates in the United States, argue other critics of control theory, do not have to do with lax social control but, instead, have much to do with the “logic of free economic enterprise and its unfortunate consequences” (Bierne & Messerschmidt, 2000, p. 169). The unfortunate consequences, according to Elliot Currie (1997) as stated by Bierne & Messerschmidt (2000), include:

  • the progressive destruction of jobs and livelihood
  • the growth of extremes of economic inequality and material deprivation
  • the withdrawal of public services and supports, especially for families and children
  • the erosion of informal and communal networks of mutual support, supervision, and care
  • the spread of materialistic, neglectful, and “hard” culture
  • the unregulated marketing of the technology of violence, and
  • the weakening of social and political alternatives (Bierne & Messerschmidt, 2000).

Adolphe Quetelet (1796—1874) held similar views and considered crime as a constant and inevitable feature of social organization (Bierne & Messerschmidt, 2000). In addition, Quetelet further claimed that society itself caused crime (Bierne & Messerschmidt, 2000). Quetelet’s intuition that society somehow caused crime was a profound theoretical departure from the crude realism of public opinion and classical criminology (Bierne & Messerschmidt, 2000). Notably, Quetelet’s theory is similar to the social learning theory which states that “social behavior is a cognitive process in which personality and environment interact reciprocally” (Bierne & Messerschmidt, 2000, p. 209). Individuals and society, therefore, are interdependent with the state holding the power and authority over the actions, behaviors and consequences imposed on members of society. Thus, a social contract is formed with an intrinsic obligation on both parties that they be fair and just in the government of the people. This social contract asserts that society is held together by a contract between citizens and property owners. The fulfillment of this contract requires a governmental authority (Bierne & Messerschmidt, 2000). The state’s ability to impose ‘law and order’, explains Garland (2001), came to be viewed not as a hostile and threatening power but as a contractual obligation owed by a democratic government to its law-abiding citizens (Garland, 2001). Crime, therefore, is likely to occur when the social bonds between an individual and society are weakened or severed (Bierne & Messerschmidt, 2000).

The causes of crime are still speculative with theorists debating the most probable influences or causations. The incontestable social fact, however, is that the growth of crime in the two decades after 1960 was massive (Garland, 2001). Furthermore, for some sections of the population, ‘deviance’ came to be a badge of freedom and ‘conformity’ a sign of dull, normalized repression (Garland, 2001). The type of criminal changed from the needy delinquent to the more threatening crack heads, thugs, and predators (Garland, 2001). Worsening street crime, urban race riots, anti-war demonstrations and political assassinations reshaped the attitudes of the middle-American public in the 1960s (Garland, 2001).

Despite the increasingly high-crime rates, the larger concern is the reactionary laws that have been enacted with legislators, particularly in the USA – now on a ‘war footing’ with respect to crime and exercise direct control over sentencing levels (Garland, 2001). The system is set up to produce an instant response to public outrage while simultaneously demonstrating that the state is in control and is willing to exercise its powers to uphold ‘law and order’ to protect the law-abiding public (Garland, 2001). Law making, thus, became a matter of retaliatory gestures intended to reassure a worried public without addressing the underlying problem (Garland, 2001). Punitive force against individuals is used to repress any acknowledgement of the state’s inability to control crime to acceptable levels (Garland, 2001).

Some of the key developments of the 1980s and 1990s have been political attempts to recover public confidence following the discrediting of adaptive strategies that become a source of political embarrassment (Garland, 2001). “A willingness to deliver harsh punishments to convicted offenders magically compensates a failure to delivery security to the population at large” (Garland, 2001, p. 134). One such embarrassment was the re-appearance of ‘negative growth’ which exposed the underlying problems of the UK and US economies and opened them up to harsh competition from newly developing economies abroad (Garland, 2001).

These economics hardships combined with the current social tensions further complicates the daily routines of the average American by adding stress and strain to the individual. Institutionalizing additional social controls through policies and informal practices does not reduce criminal activity or prevent crime; instead, it fuels the emotions of the stressful public prompting fear, panic and anger in an already volatile society. Punitive control and high rates of violent crime are both symptoms of the same problem (Bierne & Messerschmidt, 2000).



Bierne, P. & Messerschmidt, J. (2000). Criminology. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Garland, D. (2001). The culture of control: Crime and social order in contemporary society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Copyright 2016 Merlene’s Memos


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