The Crime Complex


The Crime Complex

by Merlene Reynolds

New crime control strategies are rooted in a reactionary thematization produced not just by crime; but by the whole reactionary culture and politics. The primary themes of these new strategies of crime control are expressive, punitive, victim-centered and politicized efforts to control the attitudes and behaviors in a high crime society. The liberation dynamic of the 1960’s ‘late modernity’ emphasized freedom, openness, mobility, and tolerance; whereas, the reactionary culture stresses control, closure, confinement and condemnation (Garland, 2001, pp. 165; 198).

The widespread feeling that crime and violence are rapidly spinning out of control contributes to the reactionary behaviors of citizens and government authorities. Even during the good times of economic growth and higher standards of living, explains Garland (2000), “there is every sign that the shift towards punitive justice and a security build-up is continuing unabated” (p. 203). The “unabated” shift towards punitive justice is cause for alarm. Heightened security is never good.

High crime societies are characterized by a distinctive cluster of attitudes, beliefs and assumptions which creates the development of a ‘crime complex’ producing a series of psychological and social effects that exert an influence upon politics and policy (Garland, 2001, p. 164). Citizens become crime conscious, attuned to the crime problem, and may exhibit high levels of fear and anxiety (Garland, 2001, p. 164). This cultural formation, states Garland (2001), is distinguished by the following characteristics:

  1. High crime rates are regarded as a normal social fact;
  2. Emotional investment in crime is widespread and intense, encompassing elements of fascination as well as fear, anger and resentment;
  3. Crime issues are politicized and regularly represented in emotive terms;
  4. Concerns about victims and public safety dominate public policy;
  5. The criminal justice state is viewed as inadequate or ineffective;
  6. Private, defensive routines are widespread and there is a large market in private security;
  7. A crime consciousness is institutionalized in the media, popular culture and the built environment policy (p. 163).

High crime rates combined with societal insecurities heightens anxiety and increases tension in an already high-stress, high-technology, profit-driven environment with daily demands compounded by mergers and acquisitions at the corporate level and additional legislation at the government level. Injustice is experienced at many levels in many forms provoking daily frustrations and potential outbursts at an individual level causing escalated fear, anxiety and other emotional responses that potentially evoke outrage and action at massive scales. These same fears and anxieties operate at an individual level and, thus, fuel the collective national consciousness from one end of the spectrum to the other prompting populist politicians and politicizing presidents to contribute to the reactionary thematization with campaign slogans and promises to provide change. Reactionary thinking promulgated through mass communication creates a vicious cycle that degrades and demoralizes the collective consciousness of a society. Ye reap what ye sow.

The distinct cluster of attitudes, assumptions and beliefs that characterize the ‘complex of crime’ phenomena permeates through society creating volatile reactions on the street and at the desk. The reactionary thematization is further distributed in various forms and formats from social media to mass communication with politicians and reporters producing massive amounts of information with innate biases and preconceived perceptions. The words, pictures and meanings change in intonation and connotation. The advertisers promote the current theme and consumers pay the price.

Realist criminology asserts that relative deprivation in certain conditions is the major cause of crime (Beirne & Messerschmidt, 2000, p. 231). When people experience a level of unfairness in their allocation of resources and utilize individualist means to correct the situation, it is a reaction to the experience of injustice (Beirne & Messerschmidt, 2000, p. 231). The experience of injustice provokes an “everyman for himself” attitude which is prevalent in the United States (Beirne & Messerschmidt, 2000, p. 231).

Corporations, as another example, are inherently crimogenic because of the intrinsic aspects of profit-making and the obstacles a corporation must overcome to achieve its primary goal (Beirne & Messerschmidt, 2000, p. 447). The fundamental social structure of the United States is thus equally crimogenic due to its intrinsic aspects of rebellion and defense which comprises the collective consciousness of the American citizen. Governments are thus inherently crimogenic due to the obstacles a government must overcome to achieve its primary objective of maintaining peace and goodwill for mankind while simultaneously collecting enough revenue to do so.

The comparative perspective of criminology identifies five factors that distinguish the social structure of the United States from ‘comparable societies’ and considers its social structure a contributing factor to its high crime rate (Beirne & Messerschmidt, 2000, p. 501). These five factors are:

  1. The United States has had one of the highest rates of structural unemployment since 1945.
  2. The United States has the largest underclass of persons economically, socially, and politically discriminated against because of race and ethnic background.
  3. The United States has inferior support systems of welfare, social security, health, and education.
  4. The extreme commercialization of U.S. capitalism provides incentives and motivations to circumvent acceptable (namely, legal) means of achievement.
  5. The U.S. criminal justice system is one of the most punitive control mechanisms in the world (Beirne & Messerschmidt, 2000, p. 501).

Economic and political factors have historically influenced the levels and types of crime committed. The quality of work is a consistent influence on the street crime, particularly in lower- and working class communities (Beirne & Messerschmidt, 2000, p. 446). The oil crisis of the 1970s ushered in a period of economic recession and political instability throughout the Western industrialized nations (Garland, 2001, p. 81). From the 1970s onwards, the labour markets became increasingly precarious and ‘dualized’, explains Garland (2001), and “the life-time job security that industries and the public sector had offered in the post-war years became a thing of the past as workers were forced to become mobile, more willing to develop transferrable skills, more used to retraining and relocating” (p. 82). Employees had to be flexible in response to managements’ constantly changing priorities, deadlines and stated objectives. Corporate America reflects this same type of reactionary thinking in its policies and practices which was seen when it implemented crisis management in its daily operations and, then, boasted about it.

The specific policies and practices that have emerged “are adaptations to the world in which crime control now operates and to the practical predicaments that this world creates” (Garland, 2001, p. 194). The risky, insecure character of today’s social and economic relations is the social surface that gives rise to our newly emphatic, overreaching concern with control (Garland, 2001, p. 194); and, the urgency with which we do so. It is the American mentality and the everyday circumstances that prompts our obsessive attempts to monitor individuals, to isolate dangerous populations, and to impose situational controls (Garland, 2001, p. 194). The desire for security, orderliness, and control, for the management of risk and the taming of chance, according to Garland (2001), is an underlying theme in any culture (p. 194). However, in Britain and America, “that theme has become a more dominant one, with immediate consequences for those caught up in its repressive demands, and more diffuse, corrosive effects for the rest of us” (Garland, 2001, p.194).

Control is now being re-emphasized “in every area of social life – with the singular and startling exception of the economy” (Garland, 2001, p. 195). The “capitalist rationality outlived the spiritual vocation that originally gave it impetus and meaning” (Garland, 2001, p. 204). The new culture of crime control, explains Garland (2001), was born of the fears and anxieties of the late twentieth century and could well continue long after its originating conditions have ceased to exist (p. 204).

If late modern societies are to uphold the ideals of democracy, equal rights for all, and a minimum of economic security for the whole population, states Garland (2001), “they will need to ensure that moral regulation and social control are extended to the mainstream processes of economic decision-making and market allocation – not confined to the world of offenders and claimants” (Garland, 2001, p. 203).

High crime societies, such as the United States, are particularly vulnerable to the phenomena of the crime complex. The psychological and social effects that influence politics and policy needs to be met with caution to prevent further erosion of human rights and civil liberties that ironically were diminished not just by governments acting alone or by extremist groups seeking radical changes; but, instead, were inspired and laws subsequently enacted by the voting American public. We did it to ourselves and continue to repeat the same errors of thought. We are reactionary by nature. Reactionary thinking promulgated through mass communication creates a vicious cycle that degrades and demoralizes the collective consciousness of a society. Ye reap what ye sow.



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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