A recurring theme in criminological discourse has been the relationship between “community” and crime. Whether the issue is one of “community efficacy” or the community as a source of informal social control, some theorists see “community” as an important element in crime control and bemoan the loss of community in American society.
Of course, the question they fail to address is a simple one. If community is such an important variable in the maintenance of social order why have communities become so destabilized and disorganized?
There are of course many factors to be considered. Traditionally, sociologists defined community as being bounded by locality relevance. In other words, people’s home, work, church, shopping and other activities all occurred in a delimited and defined geographical space.
That’s an easy concept to understand if we think back to industrial America. People lived near the factories where they worked. They shopped at local, neighborhood stores. Their children attended schools close to home.
But in late capitalism all that has changed. The factories are gone, moved to countries with cheap labor and few regulations regarding worker safety. The local stores have been replaced by mega-Wal-Marts. Even the neighborhood schools are now closed.
With the decline of an industrial economy and the advent of a service-based job market the average American moves their residence every five years, scarcely a condition which builds a strong sense of community. In addition, the average American will hold six different jobs and has an average tenure of only 4.1 years with each employer, a drastic change from the factory-based Fordist system of lifetime employment in a single location.
And that trend is even more pronounced among younger workers entering the job market in recent years. BLS economist Chuck Pierret has been conducting a study to better assess U.S. workers’ job stability over time, interviewing 10,000 individuals, first surveyed in 1979, when group members were between 14 and 22 years old. So far, members of the group have held 10.8 jobs, on average.
So community has been lost to massive changes in the U.S. economy in late modernity. But there has also been an additional pathogen attacking community: incarceration and prisons.
High rates of incarceration, and an over-reliance on formal means of social control, undermine informal social controls at the community level. Mass incarceration leads to increased social disorganization in the neighborhoods where people actually live.
The widely held belief that removing “criminals” from a community makes things safer is a popular falsehood. High incarceration rates actually contribute to such problems as inequality, family deterioration, economic problems, etc. Human and social capital is depleted in communities with the highest incarceration rates (Rose and Clear, 1998).
The practice of housing prisoners in remote rural communities has a devastating impact in poor communities. In many poor neighborhoods, up to 25 percent of the adult males are behind bars on any given day. This results in the removal of both human capital and social capital from these communities (Clear, 2002). An estimated $25,000 per year leaves the community for every person who is incarcerated (Clear and Rose, 1999).
In addition, incarceration results in three major disorganizing factors, which ravage communities. First, incarceration results in an alteration of the labor market (Wilson, 1987). Second, there is rampant transience in the community because there is a constant movement in and out of prison.
This in turn leads to the third factor: as new people move in neighborhoods become increasingly heterogeneous, resulting in confused cultural norms and values. This cultural disorganization is a direct result of the prison subculture. After serving long prison sentences, newly released inmates often bring prison norms and values back to the community.
Finally, in the neo-liberal state the community is weakened even further as the state reduces expenditures on education, health care, social security, and aid to children. In a state characterized by social exclusion, crime becomes a form of survival for the poor (Lea, 2002).
The strong, “welfare” state of industrial capitalism, which had been concerned with governance through social planning and social regulation, now finds itself depleted of resources. Welfare, health care, and education are privatized for profit.
The state retreats from governance, and focuses on one central concern—security.
Crime control is reduced to marginalizing and neutralizing troublesome populations. The state devolves into a debilitated, under-funded authoritarian regime, which constantly seeks to augment its police powers to manage the dangerous classes.
At the same time, real risk management is privatized to gated communities, while private security and the extension of property rights is defined in such a way as to exclude the undesirable “others” from even basic human services. Those undesirable others are the same people they have always been, those at low end of the social class scale (Lea, 2002).
But the new authoritarian state has the same problems as old sovereign monarchies. Kings could never control all of their lands. Some communities were simply outside state power, as in the Robin Hood legend. Today, ever larger geographic areas around the world are outside of state control. In these regions criminal organizations and illicit economies are tolerated by the marginalized and poor.
All the neo-liberal state can do is to engage in episodic and virtually useless violent incursions, but it can never exercise control.
Normalized crime comes to dominate neighborhoods, cities, regions and even entire countries. In much of the world the state exercises sovereignty, but criminals engage in community governance (Lea, 2002).
Gary Potter, PhD
Professor, School of Justice Studies
Eastern Kentucky University
Clear, T. 1996. Backfire: When incarceration increases crime. Journal of the Oklahoma Criminal Justice Research Consortium, 3, 2 (August): 1-10.
Clear, T. and D. Rose. 1999. When Neighbors Go to Jail: Impact on Attitudes about Formal and Informal Social Control. Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice.
Lea, J. 2002. Crime and Modernity. London: Sage.
Rose, D. and T. Clear. 1998. Incarceration, social capital, and crime: Implications for social disorganization theory. Criminology 36 (3): 441-479.
Wilson, W. J. 1987. The Truly Disadvantaged. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.