- Define deviance and categorize different types of deviant behaviour.
- Explain why certain behaviours are defined as deviant while others are not.
- Distinguish between different methods of social control.
- Describe social control as forms of governance including penal social control, discipline, and risk management.
- Describe the functionalist view of deviance in society including social disorganization theory, control theory, and strain theory.
- Discuss how critical sociology understands the relationship between deviance, crime, and social inequality (i.e., class, gender and sexuality, race and ethnicity, generations).
- Describe interpretive approaches to deviance.
- Identify and differentiate between different types of crimes.
- Identify and distinguish between different sources of crime statistics.
- Desribe and discuss the overrepresentation of different minorities in the corrections system in Canada.
- Examine alternatives to prison.
11.0 Introduction to Deviance, Crime, and Social Control
Psychopaths and sociopaths are some of the favourite “deviants” in contemporary popular culture. From Patrick Bateman in American Psycho to Dr. Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs to Dexter Morgan in Dexter, the figure of the dangerous individual who lives among us provides a fascinating fictional figure. Psychopathy and sociopathy both refer to personality disorders that involve anti-social behaviour, diminished empathy, and lack of inhibitions. In clinical analysis, these analytical categories should be distinguished from psychosis, which is a condition involving a debilitating break with reality.
Psychopaths and sociopaths are often able to manage their condition and pass as “normal” citizens, although their capacity for manipulation and cruelty can have devastating consequences for people around them. The term psychopathy is often used to emphasize that the source of the disorder is internal, based on psychological, biological, or genetic factors, whereas sociopathy is used to emphasize predominant social factors in the disorder: The social or familial sources of its development and the inability to be social or abide by societal rules (Hare, 1999). In this sense sociopathy would be the sociological disease par excellence. It entails an incapacity for companionship (socius), yet many accounts of sociopaths describe them as being charming, attractively confident, and outgoing (Hare, 1999).
In a modern society characterized by the predominance of secondary rather than primary relationships, the sociopath or psychopath functions, in popular culture at least, as a prime index of contemporary social unease. The sociopath is like the nice neighbour next door who one day “goes off” or is revealed to have had a sinister second life. In many ways the sociopath is a cypher for many of the anxieties we have about the loss of community and living among people we do not know. In this sense, the sociopath is a very modern sort of deviant. Contemporary approaches to psychopathy and sociopathy have focused on biological and genetic causes. This is a tradition that goes back to 19th century positivist approaches to deviance, which attempted to find a biological cause for criminality and other types of deviant behaviour.
Cesare Lombroso (1835–1909), an Italian professor of legal psychiatry, was a key figure in positivist criminology who thought he had isolated specific physiological characteristics of “degeneracy” that could distinguish “born criminals” from normal individuals (Rimke, 2011). In a much more sophisticated way, this was also the premise of James Fallon (b. 1947), a neuroscientist at the University of California. His research involved analyzing brain scans of serial killers. He found that areas of the frontal and temporal lobes associated with empathy, morality, and self-control are “shut off” in serial killers. In turn, this lack of brain activity has been linked with specific genetic markers suggesting that psychopathy or sociopathy was passed down genetically. Fallon’s premise was that psychopathy is genetically determined. An individual’s genes determine whether they are psychopathic or not (Fallon, 2013).
However, at the same time that Fallon was conducting research on psychopaths, he was studying the brain scans of Alzheimer’s patients. In the Alzheimer’s study, he discovered a brain scan from a control subject that indicated the symptoms of psychopathy he had seen in the brain scans of serial killers. The scan was taken from a member of his own family. He broke the seal that protected the identity of the subject and discovered it was his own brain scan.
Fallon was a married man who had raised children and held down a demanding career as a successful scientist, and yet the brain scan indicated he was a psychopath. When he researched his own genetic history, he realized that his family tree contained seven alleged murderers including the famous Lizzie Borden (1860–1927) who allegedly killed her father and stepmother in 1892. He began to notice some of his own behaviour patterns as being manipulative, obnoxiously competitive, egocentric, and aggressive, just not in a criminal manner. He decided that he was a “pro-social psychopath” — an individual who lacks true empathy for others but keeps his or her behaviour within acceptable social norms — due to the loving and nurturing family he grew up in. He had to acknowledge that environment, and not just genes, played a significant role in the expression of genetic tendencies (Fallon, 2013).
What can we learn from Fallon’s example from a sociological point of view? Firstly, psychopathy and sociopathy are recognized as problematic forms of deviance because of prevalent social anxieties about serial killers as a type of criminal who “lives next door” or “blends in”. This is partly because we live in a type of society where we do not know our neighbours well and partly because we are concerned to discover their identifiable traits are otherwise concealed. Secondly, Fallon acknowledged that there is no purely biological or genetic explanation for psychopathy and sociopathy.
Many individuals with the biological and genetic markers of psychopathy are not dangers to society — key to pathological expressions of psychopathy are elements of an individual’s social environment and social upbringing (i.e., nurture). Finally, in Fallon’s own account, it is difficult to separate the discovery of the aberrant brain scan and the discovery and acknowledgement of his personal traits of psychopathy. Is it clear which came first? He only recognizes the psychopathology in himself after seeing the brain scan. This is the problem of what Ian Hacking calls the “looping effect” (see the discussion of looping effect in 11.1 “Deviance and Control”) that affects the sociological study of deviance (2006). In summary, what Fallon’s example illustrates is the complexity of the study of social deviance.
11.1 Deviance and Control
What, exactly, is deviance? And what is the relationship between deviance and crime? According to sociologist William Graham Sumner (1840–1910), deviance is a violation of established contextual, cultural, or social norms, whether folkways, mores, or codified law (1906). As we learned in previous modules, folkways are norms based on everyday cultural customs concerning practical matters like how to hold a fork, what type of clothes are appropriate for different situations, or how to greet someone politely. Mores are more serious moral injunctions or taboos that are broadly recognized in a society, like the incest taboo. Codified laws are norms that are specified in explicit codes and enforced by government bodies. A crime is therefore an act of deviance that breaks not only a norm, but a law. Deviance can be as minor as picking one’s nose in public or as major as committing murder.
John Hagen provides a typology to classify deviant acts in terms of their perceived harmfulness, the degree of consensus concerning the norms violated, and the severity of the response to them (1994). The most serious acts of deviance are consensus crimes about which there is near-unanimous public agreement. Acts like murder and sexual assault are generally regarded as morally intolerable, injurious, and subject to harsh penalties. Conflict crimes are acts like prostitution or smoking marijuana, which may be illegal but about which there is considerable public disagreement concerning their seriousness. Social deviations are acts like abusing serving staff or behaviours arising from mental illness or addiction, which are not illegal in themselves but are widely regarded as serious or harmful. People agree that these behaviours call for institutional intervention. Finally there are social diversions like riding skateboards on sidewalks, overly tight leggings, or facial piercings that violate norms in a provocative way but are generally regarded as distasteful, or for some cool, but harmless.
The point is that the question, “What is deviant behaviour?” cannot be answered in a straightforward manner. No act or person is intrinsically deviant. This follows from two key insights of the sociological approach to deviance (which distinguish it from moral and legalistic approaches). Firstly, deviance is defined by its social context. To understand why some acts are deviant and some are not, it is necessary to understand what the context is, what the existing rules are, and how these rules came to be established. If the rules change, what counts as deviant also changes. As rules and norms vary across cultures and time, it makes sense that notions of deviance also change.
Fifty years ago, public schools in Canada had strict dress codes that, among other stipulations, often banned women from wearing pants to class. Today, it is socially acceptable for women to wear pants, but less so for men to wear skirts. In a time of war, acts usually considered morally reprehensible, such as taking the life of another, may actually be rewarded. Much of the confusion and ambiguity regarding the use of violence in hockey has to do with the different sets of rules that apply inside and outside the arena. Acts that are acceptable and even encouraged on the ice would be punished with jail time if they occurred on the street.
Whether an act is deviant or not depends on society’s definition of that act. Acts are not deviant in themselves. The second sociological insight is that deviance is not an intrinsic (biological or psychological) attribute of individuals, nor of the acts themselves, but a product of social processes. The norms themselves, or the social contexts that determine which acts are deviant or not, are continually defined and redefined through ongoing social processes — political, legal, cultural, etc. One way in which certain activities or people come to be understood and defined as deviant is through the intervention of moral entrepreneurs.
Howard Becker (b. 1928) defined moral entrepreneurs as individuals or groups who, in the service of their own interests, publicize and problematize “wrongdoing” and have the power to create and enforce rules to penalize wrongdoing (1963). Judge Emily Murphy, commonly known today as one of the Famous Five feminist suffragists who fought to have women legally recognized as “persons” (and thereby qualified to hold a position in the Canadian Senate), was a moral entrepreneur instrumental in changing Canada’s drug laws. In 1922 she wrote The Black Candle, in which she demonized the use of marijuana:
[Marijuana] has the effect of driving the [user] completely insane. The addict loses all sense of moral responsibility. Addicts to this drug, while under its influence, are immune to pain, and could be severely injured without having any realization of their condition. While in this condition they become raving maniacs and are liable to kill or indulge in any form of violence to other persons, using the most savage methods of cruelty without, as said before, any sense of moral responsibility…. They are dispossessed of their natural and normal will power, and their mentality is that of idiots. If this drug is indulged in to any great extent, it ends in the untimely death of its addict. (Murphy, 1922)
One of the tactics used by moral entrepreneurs is to create a moral panic about activities, like marijuana use, that they deem deviant. A moral panic occurs when media-fuelled public fear and overreaction lead authorities to label and repress deviants, which in turn creates a cycle in which more acts of deviance are discovered, more fear is generated, and more suppression enacted. The key insight is that individuals’ deviant status is ascribed to them through social processes. Individuals are not born deviant, but become deviant through their interaction with reference groups, institutions, and authorities.
Through social interaction, individuals are labelled deviant or come to recognize themselves as deviant. For example, in ancient Greece, homosexual relationships between older men and young acolytes were a normal component of the teacher-student relationship. Up until the 19th century, the question of who slept with whom was a matter of indifference to the law or customs, except where it related to family alliances through marriage and the transfer of property through inheritance. However, in the 19th century sexuality became a matter of moral, legal, and psychological concern. The homosexual, or “sexual invert,” was defined by the emerging psychiatric and biological disciplines as a psychological deviant whose instincts were contrary to nature.
Homosexuality was defined as not simply a matter of sexual desire or the act of sex, but as a dangerous quality that defined the entire personality and moral being of an individual (Foucault, 1980). From that point until the late 1960s, homosexuality was regarded as a deviant, closeted activity that, if exposed, could result in legal prosecution, moral condemnation, ostracism, violent assault, and loss of career. Since then, the LGBTQ rights movement and constitutional protections of civil liberties have reversed many of the attitudes and legal structures that led to the prosecution of gays, lesbians, and transgendered people. The point is that to whatever degree homosexuality has a natural or inborn biological cause, its deviance is the outcome of a social process.
It is not simply a matter of the events that lead authorities to define an activity or category of persons deviant, but of the processes by which individuals come to recognize themselves as deviant. In the process of socialization, there is a “looping effect” (Hacking, 2006). Once a category of deviance has been established and applied to a person, that person begins to define himself or herself in terms of this category and behave accordingly. This influence makes it difficult to define criminals as kinds of person in terms of pre-existing, innate predispositions or individual psychopathologies.
As we will see later in this module, it is a central tenet of symbolic interactionist labelling theory, that individuals become criminalized through contact with the criminal justice system (Becker, 1963). The well-known problem of using imprisonment to respond to criminal offenders is that prison influences individual behaviour and self-understanding, but often not in the way intended. Prisons are agents of socialization. The act of imprisonment itself modifies individual behaviour to make individuals more criminal. When we add to this insight the sociological research into the social characteristics of those who have been arrested or processed by the criminal justice system — variables such as gender, age, race, and class — it is evident that social variables and power structures are key to understanding who chooses a criminal career path.
One of the principle outcomes of these two sociological insights is that a focus on the social construction of different social experiences and problems leads to alternative ways of understanding them and responding to them. In the study of crime and deviance, the sociologist often confronts a legacy of entrenched beliefs concerning either the innate biological disposition or the individual psychopathology of persons considered abnormal: the criminal personality, the sexual or gender “deviant,” the disabled or ill person, the addict, or the mentally unstable individual. However, as Ian Hacking observed, even when these beliefs about kinds of persons are products of objective scientific classification, the institutional context of science and expert knowledge is not independent of societal norms, beliefs, and practices (2006).
The process of classifying kinds of people is a social process that Hacking called “making up people” (2006) and Howard Becker called “labelling” (1963). Crime and deviance are social constructs that vary according to the definitions of crime, the forms and effectiveness of policing, the social characteristics of criminals, and the relations of power that structure society. Part of the problem of deviance is that the social process of labelling some kinds of persons or activities as abnormal or deviant limits the type of social responses available. The major issue is not that labels are arbitrary or that it is possible not to use labels at all, but that the choice of label has consequences. Who gets labelled by whom and the way social labels are applied have powerful social repercussions. Therefore, it is necessary to use the sociological imagination to address crime and deviance both at the individual and social levels. With a deeper understanding of the social factors that produce crime and deviance, it becomes possible to develop a set of strategies that might more effectively encourage individuals to change direction.
11.1.1 Social Control as Sanction
When a person violates a social norm, what happens? A driver caught speeding can receive a speeding ticket. A student who texts in class gets a warning from a professor. An adult belching loudly is avoided. All societies practise social control, the regulation and enforcement of norms. Social control can be defined broadly as an organized action intended to change people’s behaviour (Innes, 2003). The underlying goal of social control is to maintain social order, an arrangement of practices and behaviours on which society’s members base their daily lives. Think of social order as an employee handbook, and social control as the incentives and disincentives used to encourage or oblige employees to follow those rules. When a worker violates a workplace guideline, the manager steps in to enforce the rules.
One means of enforcing rules are through sanctions. Sanctions can be positive as well as negative. Positive sanctions are rewards given for conforming to norms. A promotion at work is a positive sanction for working hard. Negative sanctions are punishments for violating norms. Being arrested is a punishment for shoplifting. Both types of sanctions play a role in social control.
Sociologists also classify sanctions as formal or informal. Although shoplifting, a form of social deviance, may be illegal, there are no laws dictating the proper way to scratch one’s nose. That doesn’t mean picking your nose in public won’t be punished; instead, you will encounter informal sanctions. Informal sanctions emerge in face-to-face social interactions. For example, wearing flip-flops to an opera or swearing loudly in church may draw disapproving looks or even verbal reprimands, whereas behaviour that is seen as positive — such as helping an old man carry grocery bags across the street — may receive positive informal reactions, such as a smile or pat on the back.
Formal sanctions, on the other hand, are ways to officially recognize and enforce norm violations. If a student is caught plagiarizing the work of others or cheating on an exam, for example, he or she might be expelled. Someone who speaks inappropriately to the boss could be fired. Someone who commits a crime may be arrested or imprisoned. On the positive side, a soldier who saves a life may receive an official commendation, or a CEO might receive a bonus for increasing the profits of the corporation.
Not all forms of social control are adequately understood through the use of sanctions, however. Donald Black (b. 1941) identified four key styles of social control, each of which defines deviance and the appropriate response to it in a different manner (1976). Penal social control functions by prohibiting certain social behaviours and responding to violations with punishment. Compensatory social control obliges an offender to pay a victim to compensate for a harm committed. Therapeutic social control involves the use of therapy to return individuals to a normal state. Conciliatory social control aims to reconcile the parties of a dispute and mutually restore harmony to a social relationship that has been damaged. While penal and compensatory social controls emphasize the use of sanctions, therapeutic and conciliatory social controls emphasize processes of restoration and healing.
11.1.2 Social Control as Government and Discipline
Michel Foucault (1926-1984) notes that from a period of early modernity onward, European society became increasingly concerned with social control as a practice of government (Foucault, 2007). In this sense of the term, government does not simply refer to the activities of the state, but to all the practices by which individuals or organizations seek to govern the behaviour of others or themselves. Government refers to the strategies by which one seeks to direct or guide the conduct of another or others. In the 15th and 16th centuries, numerous treatises were written on how to govern and educate children, how to govern the poor and beggars, how to govern a family or an estate, how to govern an army or a city, how to govern a state and run an economy, and how to govern one’s own conscience and conduct. These treatises described the burgeoning arts of government, which defined the different ways in which the conduct of individuals or groups might be directed. Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince (1532), which offers advice to the prince on how best to conduct his relationship with his subjects, is the most famous of these treatises.
The common theme in the various arts of governing proposed in early modernity was the extension of Christian monastic practices involving the detailed and continuous government and salvation of souls. The principles of monastic government were applied to a variety of non-monastic areas. People needed to be governed in all aspects of their lives. It was not, however, until the 19th century and the invention of modern institutions like the prison, public school, modern army, asylum, hospital, and factory, that the means for extending government and social control widely through the population were developed.
Foucault describes these modern forms of government as disciplinary social control because they each rely on the detailed continuous training, control, and observation of individuals to improve their capabilities: to transform criminals into law abiding citizens, children into educated and productive adults, recruits into disciplined soldiers, patients into healthy people, etc. (1979). Foucault argues that the ideal of discipline as a means of social control is to render individuals docile. That does not mean that they become passive or sheep-like, but that disciplinary training simultaneously increases their abilities, skills, and usefulness while making them more compliant and manipulable.
The chief components of disciplinary social control in modern institutions like the prison and the school are surveillance, normalization, and examination (Foucault, 1979). Surveillance refers to the various means used to make the lives and activities of individuals visible to authorities. In 1791, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) published his book on the ideal prison, the panopticon or “seeing machine.” Prisoners’ cells would be arranged in a circle around a central observation tower where they could be both separated from each other and continually exposed to the view of prison guards. In this way, Bentham proposed, social control could become automatic because prisoners would be induced to monitor and control their own behaviour.
Similarly, in a school classroom, students sit in rows of desks immediately visible to the teacher at the front of the room. In a store, shoppers can be observed through one-way glass or video monitors. Contemporary surveillance expands the capacity for observation using video or electronic forms of surveillance to render the activities of a population visible. London, England holds the dubious honour of being the most surveilled city in the world. The city’s “ring of steel” is a security cordon in which over half a million surveillance cameras are used to monitor and record traffic moving in and out of the city centre.
The practice of normalization refers to the way in which norms, such as the level of math ability expected from a grade 2 student, are first established and then used to assess, differentiate, and rank individuals according to their abilities (e.g., as an A student, B student, C student, etc.). Individuals’ progress in developing their abilities, whether in math skills, good prison behaviour, health outcomes, or other areas, is established through constant comparisons with others and with natural and observable norms. Minor sanctions are used to continuously modify behaviour that does not comply with correct conduct: Rewards are applied for good behaviour and penalties for bad.
Periodic examinations through the use of tests in schools, medical examinations in hospitals, inspections in prisons, year-end reviews in the workplace, etc. bring together surveillance and normalization in a way that enables each individual and each individual’s abilities to be assessed, documented, and known by authorities. On the basis of examinations, individuals can be subjected to different disciplinary procedures more suited to them. Gifted children might receive an enriched educational program, whereas poorer students might receive remedial lessons.
Foucault describes disciplinary social control as a key mechanism in creating a normalizing society. The establishment of norms and the development of disciplinary procedures to correct deviance from norms become increasingly central to the organization and operation of institutions from the 19th century onward. To the degree that “natural” or sociological norms are used to govern our lives more than laws and legal mechanisms, society can be said to be controlled through normalization and disciplinary procedures. Whereas the use of formal laws, courts, and the police come into play only when laws are broken, disciplinary techniques enable the continuous and ongoing social control of an expanding range of activities in our lives through surveillance, normalization, and examination. While we may never encounter the police for breaking a law, if we work, go to school, or end up in hospital, we are routinely subject to disciplinary control through most of the day.
11.1.3 Social Control as Risk Management
Recent types of social control have adopted a model of risk management in a variety of areas of problematic behaviour. Risk management refers to interventions designed to reduce the likelihood of undesirable events occurring based on an assessment of probabilities of risk. Unlike the crime and punishment model of penal social sanctions, or the rehabilitation, training, or therapeutic models of disciplinary social control, risk management strategies do not seize hold of individual deviants but attempt to restructure the environment or context of problematic behaviour in order to minimize the risks to the general population.
For example, the public health model for controlling intravenous drug use does not focus on criminalizing drug use or obliging users to rehabilitate themselves to “kick drugs” (O’Malley, 1998). It recognizes that fines or imprisonment do not curtail drug users propensity to continue to use drugs, and that therapeutic rehabilitation of drug use is not only expensive but unlikely to succeed unless drug users are willing to quit. Instead, it calculates the risk of deaths from drug overdoses and the danger to the general population from the transmission of disease (like HIV and hepatitis C) and attempts to modify the riskiest behaviours through targeted interventions. Programs like needle exchanges (designed to prevent the sharing of needles) or safe-injection-sites (designed to provide sanitary conditions for drug injection and immediate medical services for overdoses) do not prevent addicts from using drugs but minimize the harms resulting from drug use by modifying the environment in which drugs are injected. Reducing risks to public health is the priority of the public health model.
In the case of crime, the new penology strategies of social control are also less concerned with criminal responsibility, moral condemnation, or rehabilitative intervention and treatment of individual offenders (Feely & Simon, 1992). Rather, they are concerned with techniques to identify, classify, and manage groupings of offenders sorted by the degree of dangerousness they represent to the general public. In this way, imprisonment is used to incapacitate those who represent a significant risk, whereas probation and various levels of surveillance are used for those who represent a lower risk. Examples include sex offender tracking and monitoring, or the use of electronic monitoring ankle bracelets for low-risk offenders. New penology strategies seek to regulate levels of deviance, not intervene or respond to individual deviants or the social determinants of crime.
Similarly, situational crime control redesigns spaces where crimes or deviance could occur to minimize the risk of crimes occurring there (Garland, 1996). Using alarm systems, CCTV surveillance cameras, adding or improving lighting, broadcasting irritating sounds, or making street furniture uncomfortable are all ways of working on the cost/benefit analysis of potential deviants or criminals before they act rather than acting directly on the deviants or criminals themselves.
11.2 Theoretical Perspectives and Non-normativity
Why does deviance occur? How does it affect a society? Since the early days of sociology, scholars have developed theories attempting to explain what deviance and crime mean to society. These theories can be grouped according to the three major sociological paradigms: functionalism, interpretive theories, and critical theory.
Sociologists who follow the functionalist approach are concerned with how the different elements of a society contribute to the whole. They view deviance as a key component of a functioning society. Social disorganization theory, strain theory, and cultural deviance theory represent three functionalist perspectives on deviance in society.
Émile Durkheim: The Essential Nature of Deviance
Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) believed that deviance is a necessary part of a successful society. One way deviance is functional, he argued, is that it challenges people’s present views (1893). For instance, when African American students across the United States participated in “sit-in” protests during the civil rights movement, they challenged society’s notions of segregation. Moreover, Durkheim noted, when deviance is punished, it reaffirms currently held social norms, which also contributes to society (1893). Seeing a student given a detention for skipping class reminds other high schoolers that playing hooky isn’t allowed and that they, too, could get a detention.
Social Disorganization Theory
Developed by researchers at the University of Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s, social disorganization theory asserts that crime is most likely to occur in communities with weak social ties and the absence of social control. In a certain way, this is the opposite of Durkheim’s thesis. Rather than deviance being a force that reinforces moral and social solidarity, it is the absence of moral and social solidarity that provides the conditions for social deviance to emerge.
Early Chicago School sociologists used an ecological model to map the zones in Chicago where high levels of social problem were concentrated. During this period, Chicago was experiencing a long period of economic growth, urban expansion, and foreign immigration. They were particularly interested in the zones of transition between established working class neighbourhoods and the manufacturing district. The city’s poorest residents tended to live in these transitional zones, where there was a mixture of races, immigrant ethnic groups, and non-English languages, and a high rate of influx as people moved in and out. They proposed that these zones were particularly prone to social disorder because the residents had not yet assimilated to the American way of life. When they did assimilate they moved out, making it difficult for a stable social ecology to become established there.
Social disorganization theory points to broad social factors as the cause of deviance. A person is not born a criminal but becomes one over time, often based on factors in his or her social environment. This theme was taken up by Travis Hirschi’s (b. 1935) control theory. According to Hirschi, social control is directly affected by the strength of social bonds (1969). Many people would be willing to break laws or act in deviant ways to reap the rewards of pleasure, excitement, and profit, etc. if they had the opportunity. Those who do have the opportunity are those who are only weakly controlled by social restrictions. Similar to Durkheim’s theory of anomie, deviance is seen to result where feelings of disconnection from society predominate. Individuals who believe they are a part of society are less likely to commit crimes against it. Hirschi identified four types of social bonds that connect people to society (1969):
- Attachment measures our connections to others. When we are closely attached to people, we worry about their opinions of us. People conform to society’s norms in order to gain approval (and prevent disapproval) from family, friends, and romantic partners.
- Commitment refers to the investments we make in conforming to conventional behaviour. A well-respected local businesswoman who volunteers at her synagogue and is a member of the neighbourhood block organization has more to lose from committing a crime than a woman who does not have a career or ties to the community. There is a cost/benefit calculation in the decision to commit a crime in which the costs of being caught are much higher for some than others.
- Similarly, levels of involvement, or participation in socially legitimate activities, lessen a person’s likelihood of deviance. Children who are members of Little League baseball teams have fewer family crises.
- The final bond, belief, is an agreement on common values in society. If a person views social values as beliefs, he or she will conform to them. An environmentalist is more likely to pick up trash in a park because a clean environment is a social value to that person.
An individual who grows up in a poor neighbourhood with high rates of drug use, violence, teenage delinquency, and deprived parenting is more likely to become a criminal than an individual from a wealthy neighbourhood with a good school system and families who are involved positively in the community. The mutual dependencies and complex relationships that form the basis of a healthy “ecosystem” or social control do not get established.
Research into social disorganization theory can greatly influence public policy. For instance, studies have found that children from disadvantaged communities who attend preschool programs that teach basic social skills are significantly less likely to engage in criminal activity. In the same way, the Chicago School sociologists focused their efforts on community programs designed to help assimilate new immigrants into North American culture. However, in proposing that social disorganization is essentially a moral problem — that it is shared moral values that hold communities together and prevent crime and social disorder — questions about economic inequality, racism, and power dynamics do not get asked.
Robert Merton: Strain Theory
Sociologist Robert Merton (1910-2003) agreed that deviance is, in a sense, a normal behaviour in a functioning society, but he expanded on Durkheim’s ideas by developing strain theory, which notes that access to socially acceptable goals plays a part in determining whether a person conforms or deviates.
From birth, we are encouraged to achieve the goal of financial success. A woman who attends business school, receives her MBA, and goes on to make a million-dollar income as CEO of a company is said to be a success. However, not everyone in our society stands on equal footing. A person may have the socially acceptable goal of financial success but lack a socially acceptable way to reach that goal. According to Merton’s theory, an entrepreneur who can not afford to launch his own company may be tempted to embezzle from his employer for start-up funds. The discrepancy between the reality of structural inequality and the high cultural value of economic success creates a strain that has to be resolved by some means. Merton defined five ways that people adapt to this gap between having a socially accepted goal but no socially accepted way to pursue it.
- Conformity: The majority of people in society choose to conform and not to deviate. They pursue their society’s valued goals to the extent that they can through socially accepted means.
- Innovation: Those who innovate pursue goals they cannot reach through legitimate means by instead using criminal or deviant means.
- Ritualism: People who ritualize lower their goals until they can reach them through socially acceptable ways. These “social ritualists” focus on conformity to the accepted means of goal attainment while abandoning the distant, unobtainable dream of success.
- Retreatism: Others retreat from the role strain and reject both society’s goals and accepted means. Some beggars and street people have withdrawn from society’s goal of financial success. They drop out.
- Rebellion: A handful of people rebel, replacing a society’s goals and means with their own. Rebels seek to create a greatly modified social structure in which provision would be made for closer correspondence between merit, effort, and reward.
Many youth from poor backgrounds are exposed to the high value placed on material success in capitalist society but face insurmountable odds to achieving it, so turning to illegal means to achieve success is a rational, if deviant, solution.
Critical sociology looks to social and economic factors as the causes of crime and deviance. Unlike functionalists, conflict theorists don’t see these factors as necessary functions of society, but as evidence of inequality in the system. As a result of inequality, many crimes can be understood as crimes of accommodation, or ways in which individuals cope with conditions of oppression (Quinney, 1977). Predatory crimes like break and enter, robbery, and drug dealing are often simply economic survival strategies. Personal crimes like murder, assault, and sexual assault are products of the stresses and strains of living under stressful conditions of scarcity and deprivation. Defensive crimes like economic sabotage, illegal strikes, civil disobedience, and eco-terrorism are direct challenges to social injustice. The analysis of critical sociologists is not meant to excuse or rationalize crime, but to locate its underlying sources at the appropriate level so they can be addressed effectively.
Critical sociologists do not see the normative order and the criminal justice system as simply neutral or “functional” with regard to the collective interests of society. Institutions of normalization and the criminal justice system have to be seen in context as mechanisms that actively maintain the power structure of the political-economic order. The rich, the powerful, and the privileged have unequal influence on who and what gets labelled deviant or criminal, particularly in instances when their privilege is being challenged. As capitalist society is based on the institution of private property, for example, it is not surprising that theft is a major category of crime. By the same token, when street people, addicts, or hippies drop out of society, they are labelled deviant and are subject to police harassment because they have refused to participate in productive labour.
On the other hand, the ruthless and sometimes sociopathic behaviour of many business people and politicians, otherwise regarded as deviant according to the normative codes of society, is often rewarded or regarded with respect. In his book The Power Elite (1956), sociologist C. Wright Mills (1916-1962) described the existence of what he dubbed the power elite, a small group of wealthy and influential people at the top of society who hold the power and resources. Wealthy executives, politicians, celebrities, and military leaders often have access to national and international power, and in some cases, their decisions affect everyone in society. Because of this, the rules of society are stacked in favour of a privileged few who manipulate them to stay on top. It is these people who decide what is criminal and what is not, and the effects are often felt most by those who have little power. Mills’s theories explain why celebrities such as Chris Brown and Paris Hilton, or once-powerful politicians such as Eliot Spitzer and Tom DeLay, can commit crimes with little or no legal retribution.
Crime and Social Class
While functionalist theories often emphasize crime and deviance associated with the underprivileged, there is in fact no clear evidence that crimes are committed disproportionately by the poor or lower classes. There is an established association between the underprivileged and serious street crimes like armed robbery or assault, but these do not constitute the majority of crimes in society, nor the most serious crimes in terms of their overall social, personal, and environmental effects. On the other hand, crimes committed by the wealthy and powerful remain an underpunished and costly problem within society. White-collar or corporate crime refers to crimes committed by corporate employees or owners in the pursuit of profit or other organization goals. They are more difficult to detect because the transactions take place in private and are more difficult to prosecute because the criminals can secure expert legal advice on how to bend the rules.
In the United States it has been estimated that the yearly value of all street crime is roughly 5 percent of the value of corporate crime or “suite crime” (Snider, 1994). Comparable data is not compiled in Canada; however, the Canadian Department of Justice reported that the total value of property stolen or damaged due to property crime in 2008 was an estimated $5.8 billion (Zhang, 2008), which would put the cost of corporate crime at $116 billion (if the same ratio holds true in Canada). For example, Canadians for Tax Fairness estimates that wealthy Canadians have a combined total of $170 billion concealed in untaxed offshore tax havens (Tencer, 2013). “Tax haven use has robbed at least $7.8 billion in tax revenues from Canada” (Howlett, 2013).
Pricewaterhouse Coopers reports that 36 percent of Canadian companies were subject to white-collar crime in 2013 (theft, fraud, embezzlement, cybercrime). One in ten lost $5 million or more (McKenna, 2014). Recent high-profile Ponzi scheme and investment frauds run into tens of millions of dollars each, destroying investors’ retirement savings. Vincent Lacroix was sentenced to 13 years in prison in 2009 for defrauding investors of $115 million; Earl Jones was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2010 for defrauding investors of $50 million; Weizhen Tang was sentenced to 6 years in prison in 2013 for defrauding investors of $52 million. These were highly publicized cases in which jail time was demanded by the public (although as nonviolent offenders the perpetrators are eligible for parole after serving one-sixth of their sentence). However, in 2011–2012 prison sentences were nearly twice as likely for the typically lower-class perpetrators of break and enters (59 percent) as they were for typically middle- and upper-class perpetrators of fraud (35 percent) (Boyce, 2013).
This imbalance based on class power can also be put into perspective with respect to homicide rates (Samuelson, 2000). In 2005, there were 658 homicides in Canada recorded by police, an average of 1.8 a day. This is an extremely serious crime, which merits the attention given to it by the criminal justice system. However, in 2005 there were also 1,097 workplace deaths that were, in principle, preventable. Canadians work on average 230 days a year, meaning that there were on average five workplace deaths a day for every working day in 2005 (Sharpe & Hardt, 2006). Estimates from the United States suggest that only one-third of on-the-job deaths and injuries can be attributed to worker carelessness (Samuelson, 2000).
In 2005, 51 percent of the workplace deaths in Canada were due to occupational diseases like cancers from exposure to asbestos (Sharpe & Hardt, 2006). The Ocean Ranger oil rig collapse that killed 84 workers off Newfoundland in 1982 and the Westray Mine explosion that killed 26 workers in Nova Scotia in 1992 were due to design flaws and unsafe working conditions that were known to the owners. However, whereas corporations are prosecuted for regulatory violations governing health and safety, it is rare for corporations or corporate officials to be prosecuted for the consequences of those violations. “For example, a company would be fined for not installing safety bolts in a construction crane, but not prosecuted for the death of several workers who were below the crane when it collapsed (as in a recent case in Western Canada)” (Samuelson, 2000).
Corporate crime is arguably a more serious type of crime than street crime, and yet white-collar criminals are treated relatively leniently. Fines, when they are imposed, are typically absorbed as a cost of doing business and passed on to consumers, and many crimes, from investment fraud to insider trading and price fixing, are simply not prosecuted. From a critical sociology point of view, this is because white-collar crime is committed by elites who are able to use their power and financial resources to evade punishment. Here are some examples:
- In the United States, not a single criminal charge was filed against a corporate executive after the financial mismanagement of the 2008 financial crisis. The American Security and Exchange Commission levied a total of $2.73 billion in fines and out-of-court settlements, but the total cost of the financial crisis was estimated to be between $6 and $14 trillion (Pyke, 2013).
- In Canada, three Nortel executives were charged by the RCMP’s Integrated Market Enforcement Team (IMET) with fraudulently altering accounting procedures in 2002–2003 to make it appear that Nortel was running a profit (thereby triggering salary bonuses for themselves totalling $12 million), but were acquitted in 2013. The accounting procedures were found to inflate the value of the company, but the intent to defraud could not be proven. The RCMP’s IMET, implemented in 2003 to fight white-collar crime, managed only 11 convictions over the first nine years of its existence (McFarland & Blackwell, 2013).
- Enbridge’s 20,000-barrel spill of bitumen (tar sands) oil into the Kalamazoo River, Michigan in 2010 was allowed to continue for 17 hours and involved the company twice re-pumping bitumen into the pipeline. The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board report noted that the spill was the result of “pervasive organizational failures,” and documents revealed that the pipeline operators were more concerned about getting home for the weekend than solving the problem (Rusnell, 2012). No criminal charges were laid.
Women who are regarded as criminally deviant are often seen as being doubly deviant. They have broken the law but they have also broken gender norms about appropriate female behaviour, whereas men’s criminal behaviour is seen as consistent with their aggressive, self-assertive character. This double standard also explains the tendency to medicalize women’s deviance, to see it as the product of physiological or psychiatric pathology. For example, in the late 19th century, kleptomania was a diagnosis used in legal defences that linked an extreme desire for department store commodities with various forms of female physiological or psychiatric illness. The fact that “good” middle- and upper-class women, who were at that time coincidentally beginning to experience the benefits of independence from men, would turn to stealing in department stores to obtain the new feminine consumer items on display there, could not be explained without resorting to diagnosing the activity as an illness of the “weaker sex” (Kramar, 2011).
Feminist analysis focuses on the way gender inequality influences the opportunities to commit crime and the definition, detection, and prosecution of crime. In part the gender difference revolves around patriarchal attitudes toward women and the disregard for matters considered to be of a private or domestic nature. For example, until 1969 abortion was illegal in Canada, meaning that hundreds of women died or were injured each year when they received illegal abortions (McLaren & McLaren, 1997). It was not until the Supreme Court ruling in 1988 that struck down the law that it was acknowledged that women are capable of making their own choice, in consultation with a doctor, about the procedure. Similarly, until the 1970s two major types of criminal deviance were largely ignored or were difficult to prosecute as crimes: sexual assault and spousal assault.
Through the 1970s, women worked to change the criminal justice system and establish rape crisis centres and battered women’s shelters, bringing attention to domestic violence. In 1983 the Criminal Code was amended to replace the crimes of rape and indecent assault with a three-tier structure of sexual assault (ranging from unwanted sexual touching that violates the integrity of the victim to sexual assault with a weapon or threats or causing bodily harm to aggravated sexual assault that results in wounding, maiming, disfiguring, or endangering the life of the victim) (Kong et al., 2003). Holly Johnson reported that in the mid-1990s, when violence against women began to be surveyed systematically in Canada, 51 percent of Canadian women had been the subject of at least one sexual or physical assault since the age of 16 (1996).
The goal of the amendments was to emphasize that sexual assault is an act of violence, not a sexual act. Previously, rape had been defined as an act that involved penetration and was perpetrated against a woman who was not the wife of the accused. This had excluded spousal sexual assault as a crime and had also exposed women to secondary victimization by the criminal justice system when they tried to bring charges. Secondary victimization occurs when the women’s own sexual history and her willingness to consent are questioned in the process of laying charges and reaching a conviction, which as feminists pointed out, increased victims’ reluctance to lay charges.
In particular, feminists challenged the twin myths of rape that were often the subtext of criminal justice proceedings presided over largely by men (Kramar, 2011). The first myth is that women are untrustworthy and tend to lie about assault out of malice toward men, as a way of getting back at them for personal grievances. The second myth, is that women will say no to sexual relations when they really mean yes. Typical of these types of issues was the judge’s comment in a Manitoba Court of Appeal case in which a man pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting his twelve- or thirteen-year-old babysitter:
The girl, of course, could not consent in the legal sense, but nonetheless was a willing participant. She was apparently more sophisticated than many her age and was performing many household tasks including babysitting the accused’s children. The accused and his wife were somewhat estranged (as cited in Kramar, 2011).
Because the girl was willing to perform household chores in place of the man’s estranged wife, the judge assumed she was also willing to engage in sexual relations. In order to address these types of issue, feminists successfully pressed the Supreme Court to deliver rulings that restricted a defence attorney’s access to a victim’s medical and counselling records and rules of evidence were changed to prevent a woman’s past sexual history being used against her. Consent to sexual discourse was redefined as what a woman actually says or does, not what the man believes to be consent. Feminists also argued that spousal assault was a key component of patriarchal power. Typically it was hidden in the household and largely regarded as a private, domestic matter in which police were reluctant to get involved.
Interestingly women and men report similar rates of spousal violence — in 2009, 6 percent had experienced spousal violence in the previous five years — but women are more likely to experience more severe forms of violence including multiple victimizations and violence leading to physical injury (Sinha, 2013). In order to empower women, feminists pressed lawmakers to develop zero-tolerance policies that would support aggressive policing and prosecution of offenders. These policies oblige police to lay charges in cases of domestic violence when a complaint is made, whether or not the victim wished to proceed with charges (Kramar, 2011).
In 2009, 84 percent of violent spousal incidents reported by women to police resulted in charges being laid. However, according to victimization surveys only 30 percent of actual incidents were reported to police. The majority of women who did not report incidents to the police stated that they dealt with them in another way, felt they were a private matter, or did not think the incidents were important enough to report. A significant proportion, however, did not want anyone to find out (44 percent), did not want their spouse to be arrested (40 percent), or were too afraid of their spouse (19 percent) (Sinha, 2013).
11.3.2 Symbolic Interactionism
Symbolic interactionism is an interpretive theoretical approach that can be used to explain how societies and/or social groups come to view behaviours as deviant or conventional. The key component of this approach is to emphasize the social processes through which deviant activities and identities are socially defined and then “lived” as deviant. Social groups and authorities create deviance by first making the rules and then applying them to people who are thereby labelled as outsiders (Becker, 1963). Deviance is not an intrinsic quality of individuals but is created through the social interactions of individuals and various authorities. Deviance is something that, in essence, is learned.
Deviance as Learned Behaviour
In the early 1900s, sociologist Edwin Sutherland (1883-1950) sought to understand how deviant behaviour developed among people. Since criminology was a young field, he drew on other aspects of sociology including social interactions and group learning (Laub, 2006). His conclusions established differential association theory, stating that individuals learn deviant behaviour from those close to them who provide models of and opportunities for deviance. According to Sutherland, deviance is less a personal choice and more a result of differential socialization processes. A tween whose friends are sexually active is more likely to view sexual activity as acceptable.
A classic study of differential association is Howard Becker’s (b. 1928) study of marijuana users in the jazz club scene of Chicago in the 1950s (1953). Becker paid his way through graduate studies by performing as a jazz pianist and took the opportunity to study his fellow musicians. He conducted 50 interviews and noted that becoming a marijuana user involved a social process of initiation into a deviant role that could not be accounted for by either the physiological properties of marijuana or the psychological needs (for escape, fantasy, etc.) of the individual. Rather the “career” of the marijuana user involved a sequence of changes in attitude and experience learned through social interactions with experienced users before marijuana could be regularly smoked for pleasure.
Regular marijuana use was a social achievement that required the individual to pass through three distinct stages. Failure to do so meant that the individual would not assume the deviant role as a regular user of marijuana. Firstly, individuals had to learn to smoke marijuana in a way that would produce real effects. Many first-time users do not feel the effects. If they are not shown how to inhale the smoke or how much to smoke, they might not feel the drug had any effect on them. Their “career” might end there if they are not encouraged by others to persist. Secondly, they had to learn to recognize the effects of “being high” and connect them with drug use.
Although people might display different symptoms of intoxication — feeling hungry, elated, rubbery, etc. — they might not recognize them as qualities associated with the marijuana or even recognize them as different at all. Through listening to experienced users talk about their experiences, novices are able to locate the same type of sensations in their own experience and notice something qualitatively different going on. Thirdly, they had to learn how to enjoy the sensations: They had to learn how to define the situation of getting high as pleasurable. Smoking marijuana is not necessarily pleasurable and often involves uncomfortable experiences like loss of control, impaired judgement, distorted perception, and paranoia. Unless the experiences can be redefined as pleasurable, the individual will not become a regular user. Often experienced users are able to coach novices through difficulties and encourage them by telling them they will learn to like it. It is through differential association with a specific set of individuals that a person learns and assumes a deviant role. The role needs to be learned and its value recognized before it can become routine or normal for the individual.
Although all of us violate norms from time to time, few people would consider themselves deviant. Often, those who do, however, have gradually come to believe they are deviant because they been labelled “deviant” by society. Labelling theory examines the ascribing of a deviant behaviour to another person by members of society. Thus, what is considered deviant is determined not so much by the behaviours themselves or the people who commit them, but by the reactions of others to these behaviours. As a result, what is considered deviant changes over time and can vary significantly across cultures. As Becker put it, “deviance is not a quality of the act the person commits, but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to the offender. The deviant is one to whom the label has successfully been applied; deviant behaviour is behaviour people so label” (1963).
It is important to note that labelling theory does not address the initial motives or reasons for the rule-breaking behaviour, which might be unknowable, but the importance of its social consequences. It does not attempt to answer the questions of why people break the rules or why they are deviant so much as why particular acts or particular individuals are labelled deviant while others are not. How do certain acts get labelled deviant and what are the consequences?
Sociologist Edwin Lemert expanded on the concepts of labelling theory, identifying two types of deviance that affect identity formation. Primary deviance is a violation of norms that does not result in any long-term effects on the individual’s self-image or interactions with others. Speeding is a deviant act, but receiving a speeding ticket generally does not make others view you as a bad person, nor does it alter your own self-concept. Individuals who engage in primary deviance still maintain a feeling of belonging in society and are likely to continue to conform to norms in the future.
Sometimes, in more extreme cases, primary deviance can morph into secondary deviance. Secondary deviance occurs when a person’s self-concept and behaviour begin to change after his or her actions are labelled as deviant by members of society. The person may begin to take on and fulfill the role of a “deviant” as an act of rebellion against the society that has labelled that individual as such. For example, consider a high school student who often cuts class and gets into fights. The student is reprimanded frequently by teachers and school staff, and soon enough, develops a reputation as a “troublemaker.” As a result, the student starts acting out even more and breaking more rules, adopting the troublemaker label and embracing this deviant identity.
Secondary deviance can be so strong that it bestows a master status on an individual. A master status is a label that describes the chief characteristic of an individual. Some people see themselves primarily as doctors, artists, or grandfathers. Others see themselves as beggars, convicts, or addicts. The criminal justice system is ironically one of the primary agencies of socialization into the criminal “career path.” The labels “juvenile delinquent” or “criminal” are not automatically applied to individuals who break the law. A teenager who is picked up by the police for a minor misdemeanour might be labelled as a “good kid” who made a mistake and who then is released after a stern talking to, or he or she might be labelled a juvenile delinquent and processed as a young offender. In the first case, the incident may not make any impression on the teenager’s personality or on the way others react to him or her. In the second case, being labelled a juvenile delinquent sets up a set of responses to the teenager by police and authorities that lead to criminal charges, more severe penalties, and a process of socialization into the criminal identity.
In detention in particular, individuals learn how to assume the identity of serious offenders as they interact with hardened, long-term inmates within the prison culture (Wheeler, 1961). The act of imprisonment itself modifies behaviour, to make individuals more criminal. Aaron Cicourel’s (b. 1928) research in the 1960s showed how police used their discretionary powers to label rule-breaking teenagers who came from homes where the parents were divorced as juvenile delinquents and to arrest them more frequently than teenagers from “intact homes” (1968). Judges were also found to be more likely to impose harsher penalties on teenagers from divorced families.
Unsurprisingly, Cicourel noted that subsequent research conducted on the social characteristics of teenagers who were charged and processed as juvenile delinquents found that children from divorced families were more likely to be charged and processed. Divorced families were seen as a cause of youth crime. This set up a vicious circle in which the research confirmed the prejudices of police and judges who continued to label, arrest, and convict the children of divorced families disproportionately. The labelling process acted as a self-fulfilling prophecy in which police found what they expected to see.
11.3 Crime and the Law
The sociological study of crime, deviance, and social control is especially important with respect to public policy debates. In 2012 the Conservative government passed the Safe Streets and Communities Act, a controversial piece of legislation because it introduced mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug or sex related offences, restricted the use of conditional sentencing (i.e., non-prison punishments), imposed harsher sentences on certain categories of young offender, reduced the ability for Canadians with a criminal record to receive a pardon, and made it more difficult for Canadians imprisoned abroad to transfer back to a Canadian prison to be near family and support networks. The legislation imposes a mandatory six-month sentence for cultivating six marijuana plants, for example. This followed the Tackling Violent Crime Act passed in 2008, which among other provisions, imposed a mandatory three-year sentence for first-time gun-related offences. Interestingly, with the change of government in Canada in 2016 and subsequent changes to legislation it is now legal to cultivate four marijuana plans for personal use.
This government policy represented a shift toward a punitive approach to crime control and away from preventive strategies such as drug rehabilitation, prison diversion, and social reintegration programs. Despite the evidence that rates of serious and violent crime have been falling in Canada, and while even some of the most conservative politicians in the United States have begun to reject the punitive approach as an expensive failure, the government pushed the legislation through Parliament. In response to evidence that puts into question the need for more punitive measures of crime control, then Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said, “Unlike the Opposition, we do not use statistics as an excuse not to get tough on criminals. As far as our Government is concerned, one victim of crime is still one too many” (Galloway, 2011). What accounts for the appeal of “get tough on criminals” policies at a time when rates of crime, and violent crime in particular, are falling and are currently at their lowest level since 1972 (Perreault, 2013)? One reason is that violent crime is a form of deviance that lends itself to spectacular media coverage that distorts its actual threat to the public.
Television news broadcasts frequently begin with “chaos news” — crime, accidents, natural disasters — that present an image of society as a dangerous and unpredictable place. However, the image of crime presented in the headlines does not accurately represent the types of crime that actually occur. Whereas the news typically reports on the worst sorts of violent crime, violent crime made up only 21 percent of all police-reported crime in 2012 (down 17 percent from 2002), and homicides made up only one-tenth of 1 percent of all violent crimes in 2012 (down 16 percent from 2002). In 2012, the homicide rate fell to its lowest level since 1966 (Perreault, 2013). Moreover, an analysis of television news reporting on murders in 2000 showed that while 44 percent of CBC news coverage and 48 percent of CTV news coverage focused on murders committed by strangers, only 12 percent of murders in Canada are committed by strangers. Similarly, while 24 percent of the CBC reports and 22 percent of the CTV reports referred to murders in which a gun had been used, only 3.3 percent of all violent crime involved the use of a gun in 1999. In 1999, 71 percent of violent crimes in Canada did not involve any weapon (Miljan, 2001).
This distortion creates the conditions for moral panics around crime. As we noted earlier, a moral panic occurs when a relatively minor or atypical situation of deviance arises that is amplified and distorted by the media, police, or members of the public. It thereby comes to be defined as a general threat to the civility or moral fibre of society (Cohen, 1972). As public attention is brought to the situation, more instances are discovered, the deviants are rebranded as “folk devils,” and authorities react by taking social control measures disproportionate to the original acts of deviance that began the cycle.
For example, the implementation of mandatory minimum sentences for the cultivation of marijuana is framed in the Safe Streets and Communities legislation as a response to the infiltration of organized crime into Canada. For years newspapers have uncritically published police messaging on grow-ops and the marijuana trade that characterizes the activities as widespread, gang-related, and linked to the cross-border trade in guns and more serious drugs like heroin and cocaine. Television news coverage often shows police in white, disposable hazardous-waste outfits removing marijuana plants from suburban houses, and presents exaggerated estimates of the street value of the drugs. However a Justice Department study in 2011 revealed that out of a random sample of 500 grow-ops, only 5 percent had connections to organized crime. Moreover, an RCMP-funded study from 2005 noted that “firearms or other hazards” were found in only 6 percent of grow-op cases examined (Boyd & Carter, 2014). While 76 percent of Canadians believe that marijuana should be legally available (Stockwell et al., 2006), and several jurisdictions (Washington and Colorado states, and Uruguay) have legalized marijuana, the Safe Streets and Communities Act appeared to be an attempt to reinvigorate the punitive messaging of the “war on drugs” based on disinformation and moral panic around marijuana use and cultivation.
11.3.1 What Is Crime?
Although deviance is a violation of social norms, it is not always punishable, and it is not necessarily bad. Crime, on the other hand, is a behaviour that violates official law and is punishable through formal sanctions. Walking to class backwards is a deviant behaviour. Driving with a blood alcohol percentage over the province’s limit is a crime. Like other forms of deviance, however, ambiguity exists concerning what constitutes a crime and whether all crimes are, in fact, “bad” and deserve punishment. For example, in 1946 Viola Desmond refused to sit in the balcony designated for blacks at a cinema in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, where she was unable to see the screen. She was dragged from the cinema by two men who injured her knee, and she was then arrested, obliged to stay overnight in the male cell block, tried without counsel, and fined.
The courts ignored the issue of racial segregation in Canada. Instead her crime was determined to be tax evasion because she had not paid the 1 cent difference in tax between a balcony ticket and a main floor ticket. She took her case to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia where she lost. In hindsight, and long after her death, she was posthumously pardoned, because the application of the law was clearly in violation of norms of social equality. As you learned previously, all societies have informal and formal ways of maintaining social control. Within these systems of norms, societies have legal codes that maintain formal social control through laws, which are rules adopted and enforced by a political authority. Those who violate these rules incur negative formal sanctions. Normally, punishments are relative to the degree of the crime and the importance to society of the value underlying the law. As we will see, however, there are other factors that influence criminal sentencing.
11.3.2 Types of Crimes
Not all crimes are given equal weight. Society generally socializes its members to view certain crimes as more severe than others. For example, most people would consider murdering someone to be far worse than stealing a wallet and would expect a murderer to be punished more severely than a thief. In modern North American society, crimes are classified as one of two types based on their severity. Violent crimes (also known as “crimes against a person”) are based on the use of force or the threat of force. Rape, murder, and armed robbery fall under this category. Nonviolent crimes involve the destruction or theft of property, but do not use force or the threat of force. Because of this, they are also sometimes called “property crimes.” Larceny, car theft, and vandalism are all types of nonviolent crimes. If you use a crowbar to break into a car, you are committing a nonviolent crime; if you mug someone with the crowbar, you are committing a violent crime.
As we noted earlier in the section on critical sociological approaches, when we think of crime, we often picture street crime, or offences committed by ordinary people against other people or organizations, usually in public spaces. An often overlooked category is corporate crime (also called “suite crime”), or crime committed by white-collar workers in a business environment. Embezzlement, insider trading, and identity theft are all types of corporate crime. Although these types of offences rarely receive the same amount of media coverage as street crimes, they can be far more damaging. The 2008 world economic recession was the ultimate result of a financial collapse triggered by corporate crime. An often-debated third type of crime is victimless crime. These are called victimless because the perpetrator is not explicitly harming another person. As opposed to battery or theft, which clearly have a victim, a crime like drinking a beer at age 17 or selling a sexual act do not result in injury to anyone other than the individual who engages in them, although they are illegal. While some claim acts like these are victimless, others argue that they actually do harm society. Prostitution may foster abuse toward women by clients or pimps. Drug use may increase the likelihood of employee absences. Such debates highlight how the deviant and criminal nature of actions develops through ongoing public discussion.
11.3.3 Crime Statistics
What crimes are people in Canada most likely to commit, and who is most likely to commit them? To understand criminal statistics, you must first understand how these statistics are collected. Since 1962, Statistics Canada has been collecting and publishing an archive of crime statistics known as the Uniform Crime Reports Survey (UCR). These annual publications contain data from all the police agencies in Canada. Although the UCR contains comprehensive data on police reports, it fails to take into account the fact that many crimes go unreported due to the victims’ unwillingness to report them, largely based on fear, shame, or distrust of the police. The accuracy of the data collected by the UCR also varies greatly. Because police and other authorities decide which criminal acts they are going to focus on, the data reflects the priorities of the police rather than actual levels of crime per se. For example, if police decide to focus on gun-related crimes, chances are that more gun-related crimes will be discovered and counted.
Similarly, changes in legislation that introduce new crimes or change the categories under which crimes are recorded will also alter the statistics. To address some of these problems, in 1985, Statistics Canada began to publish a separate report known as the General Social Survey on Victimization (GSS). The GSS is a self-report study. A self-report study is a collection of data acquired using voluntary response methods, based on telephone interviews. In 2014, for example, survey data were gathered from 79,770 households across Canada on the frequency and type of crime they experience in their daily lives. The surveys are thorough, providing a wider scope of information than was previously available. This allows researchers to examine crime from more detailed perspectives and to analyze the data based on factors such as the relationship between victims and offenders, the consequences of the crimes, and substance abuse involved in the crimes. Demographics are also analyzed, such as age, ethnicity, gender, location, and income level.
The GSS reports a higher rate of crime than the UCR, especially for less serious crimes. In the 2009 GSS on Victimization, only 31 percent of criminal incidents experienced by respondents were reported to police (Perreault & Brennan, 2010). Though the GSS is a critical source of statistical information, disadvantages exist. “Non-response,” or a victim’s failure to participate in the survey or a particular question, is among them. Inability to contact important demographics, such as those who do not have access to phones or who frequently relocate, also skews the data. For those who participate, memory issues can be problematic for the data sets. Some victims’ recollection of the crimes can be inaccurate or simply forgotten over time.
11.3.4 The Declining Crime Rate in Canada
While neither of these publications can take into account all of the crimes committed in the country, some general trends may be noted. Crime rates were on the rise after 1960, but following an all-time high in the 1980s and 1990s, rates of violent and nonviolent crimes started to decline. In 2012 they reached their lowest level since 1972 (Perreault, 2013).
In 2012, approximately 2 million crimes occurred in Canada. Of those, 415,000 were classified as violent crimes, the majority being assault and robbery. The rate of violent crime reached its lowest level since 1987, led by decreases in sexual assault, common assault, and robbery. The homicide rate fell to its lowest level since 1966. An estimated 1.58 million nonviolent crimes also took place; the most common being theft under $5,000 and mischief. The major contribution to the declining crime rate has been decreases in nonviolent crime, especially decreases in mischief, break-ins, disturbing the peace, theft of a motor vehicle, and possession of stolen property. As noted above, however, only 31 percent of violent and nonviolent crimes were reported to the police.
What accounts for the decreases in the crime rate? Opinion polls continue to show that a majority of Canadians believe that crime rates, especially violent crime rates, are rising (Edmiston, 2012), even though the statistics show a steady decline since 1991. Where is the disconnect? There are three primary reasons for the decline in the crime rate. Firstly, it reflects the demographic changes to the Canadian population. Most crime is committed by people aged 15 to 24. This age cohort has declined in size since 1991. Secondly, male unemployment is highly correlated with the crime rate. Following the recession of 1990–1991, better economic conditions improved male unemployment. Thirdly, police methods have arguably improved since 1991, including having a more targeted approach to particular sites and types of crime. Whereas reporting on spectacular crime has not diminished, the underlying social and policing conditions have. It is very difficult to get a feel for statistical realities when you are sitting in front of a TV screen that shows a daily litany of violent and frightening crime.
The corrections system, more commonly known as the prison system, is tasked with supervising individuals who have been arrested, convicted, and sentenced for a criminal offence. At the end of 2011, approximately 38,000 adults were in prison in Canada, while another 125,000 were under community supervision or probation (Dauvergne, 2012). By way of contrast, seven million Americans were behind bars in 2010 (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2011). Canada’s rate of adult incarceration in 2011 was 140 per 100,000 population. In the United States in 2008, the incarceration rate was approximately 1,000 per 100,000 population. More than 1 in 100 U.S. adults were in jail or prison, the highest benchmark in U.S. history. While Americans account for 5 percent of the global population, they have 25 percent of the world’s inmates, the largest number of prisoners in the world (Liptak, 2008). While Canada’s rate of incarceration is far lower than that of the United States, there are nevertheless some disturbing features of the Canadian corrections system.
From 2010 to 2011, Indigenous Canadians were 10 times more likely to be incarcerated than the non-Indigenous population. While Indigenous people accounted for about 4 percent of the Canadian population, in 2013, they made up 23.2 percent of the federal penitentiary population. Indigenous women made up 33.6 percent of incarcerated women in Canada. This problem of overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the corrections system — the difference between the proportion of Indigenous people incarcerated in Canadian correctional facilities and their proportion in the general population — continues to grow appreciably despite a Supreme Court ruling in 1999 (R. vs. Gladue) that the social history of Indigenous offenders should be considered in sentencing. Section 718.2 of the Criminal Code states, “all available sanctions other than imprisonment that are reasonable in the circumstances should be considered for all offenders, with particular attention to the circumstances of Indigenous offenders.” Prison is supposed to be used only as a last resort. Nevertheless, between 2003 and 2013, the Indigenous population in prison grew by 44 percent (Correctional Investigator Canada, 2013).
Hartnagel summarised the literature on why Indigenous people are overrepresented in the criminal justice system (2004). Firstly, Indigenous people are disproportionately poor and poverty is associated with higher arrest and incarceration rates. Unemployment in particular is correlated with higher crime rates. Secondly, Indigenous lawbreakers tend to commit more detectable street crimes than the less detectable white collar or suite crimes of other segments of the population. Thirdly, the criminal justice system disproportionately profiles and discriminates against Indigenous people. It is more likely for Indigneous people to be apprehended, processed, prosecuted, and sentenced than non-Indigenous people. Fourthly, the legacy of colonization has disrupted and weakened traditional sources of social control in Indigenous communities. The informal social controls that effectively control criminal and deviant behaviour in intact communities have been compromised in Indigenous communities due to the effects of forced assimilation, the residential school system, and migration to poor inner city neighbourhoods.
Although black Canadians are a smaller minority of the Canadian population than Indigenous people, they experience a similar problem of overrepresentation in the prison system. Blacks represent approximately 2.9 percent of the Canadian population, but accounted for 9.5 percent of the total prison population in 2013, up from 6.3 percent in 2003–2004 (Correctional Investigator Canada, 2013). A survey revealed that blacks in Toronto are subject to racial profiling by the police, which might partially explain their higher incarceration rate (Wortley, 2003). Racial profiling occurs when police single out a particular racial group for extra policing, including a disproportionate use of stop-and-search practices (i.e. “carding”), undercover sting operations, police patrols in racial minority neighbourhoods, and extra attention at border crossings and airports. Survey respondents revealed that blacks in Toronto were much more likely to be stopped and searched by police than were whites or Asians. Moreover, in a reverse of the situation for whites, older and more affluent black males were more likely to be stopped and searched than younger, lower-income blacks. As one survey respondent put it: “If you are black and drive a nice car, the police think you are a drug dealer or that you stole the car. They always pull you over to check you out” (Wortley, 2003).
11.3.6 Prisons and their Alternatives
Recent public debates in Canada on being “tough on crime” often revolve around the idea that imprisonment and mandatory minimum sentences are effective crime control practices. It seems intuitive that harsher penalties will deter offenders from committing more crimes after their release from prison. However research shows that serving prison time does not reduce the propensity to re-offend after the sentence has been completed. In general the effect of imprisonment on recidivism — the likelihood for people to be arrested again after an initial arrest — was either non-existent or actually increased the likelihood of re-offence in comparison to non-prison sentences (Nagin, Cullen, & Jonson, 2009). In particular, first time offenders who are sent to prison have higher rates of recidivism than similar offenders sentenced to community service (Nieuwbeerta, Nagin, & Blockland, 2009).
Moreover, the collateral effects of the imprisonment of one family member include negative impacts on the other family members and communities, including increased aggressiveness of young sons (Wildeman, 2010) and increased likelihood that the children of incarcerated fathers will commit offences as adults (van de Rakt & Nieuwbeerta, 2012). Some researchers have spoken about a penal-welfare complex to describe the creation of inter-generational criminalized populations who are excluded from participating in society or holding regular jobs on a semi-permanent basis (Garland, 1985). The painful irony for these groups is that the petty crimes like theft, public consumption of alcohol, drug use, etc. that enable them to get by in the absence of regular sources of security and income are increasingly targeted by zero tolerance and minimum sentencing policies of crime control.
There are a number of alternatives to prison sentences used as criminal sanctions in Canada including fines, electronic monitoring, probation, and community service. These alternatives divert offenders from forms of penal social control, largely on the basis of principles drawn from labelling theory. They emphasize to varying degrees compensatory social control, which obliges an offender to pay a victim to compensate for a harm committed; therapeutic social control, which involves the use of therapy to return individuals to a normal state; and conciliatory social control, which reconciles the parties of a dispute to mutually restore harmony to a social relationship that has been damaged.
Many non-custodial sentences involve community-based sentencing, in which offenders serve a conditional sentence in the community, usually by performing some sort of community service. The argument for these types of programs is that rehabilitation is more effective if the offender is in the community rather than prison. A version of community-based sentencing is restorative justice conferencing, which focuses on establishing a direct, face-to-face connection between the offender and the victim. The offender is obliged to make restitution to the victim, thus “restoring” a situation of justice. Part of the process of restorative justice is to bring the offender to a position in which he or she can fully acknowledge responsibility for the offence, express remorse, and make a meaningful apology to the victim (Department of Justice, 2013).
In special cases where the parties agree, Indigenous sentencing circles involve victims, the Indigenous community, and Indigenous elders in a process of deliberation with Indigenous offenders to determine the best way to find healing for the harm done to victims and communities. The emphasis is on forms of traditional Indigenous justice, which centre on healing and building community rather than retribution. These might involve specialized counselling or treatment programs, community service under the supervision of elders, or the use of an Indigenous nation’s traditional penalties (Aboriginal Justice Directorate, 2005).
It is difficult to find data in Canada on the effectiveness of these types of programs. However, a large meta-analysis study that examined ten studies from Europe, North America, and Australia was able to determine that restorative justice conferencing was effective in reducing rates of recidivism and in reducing costs to the criminal justice system (Strang et al., 2013). The authors suggest that recidivism was reduced between 7 and 45 percent from traditional penal sentences by using restorative justice conferencing.
Rehabilitation and recidivism are of course not the only goals of the corrections systems. Many people are skeptical about the capacity of offenders to be rehabilitated and see criminal sanctions more importantly as a means of (a) deterrence to prevent crimes, (b) retribution or revenge to address harms to victims and communities, or (c) incapacitation to remove dangerous individuals from society.
The sociological study of crime, deviance, and social control is especially important with respect to public policy debates. The political controversies that surround the question of how best to respond to crime are difficult to resolve at the level of political rhetoric. Often, in the news and public discourse, the issue is framed in moral terms; therefore, for example, the policy alternatives get narrowed to the option of either being “tough” on crime or “soft” on crime. Tough and soft are moral categories that reflect a moral characterization of the issue. A question framed by these types of moral categories cannot be resolved by using evidence-based procedures.
Posing the debate in these terms narrows the range of options available and undermines the ability to raise questions about which responses to crime actually work. In fact policy debates over crime seem especially susceptible to the various forms of specious reasoning described in Module 3, “Science vs. Non-Science”. The story of the isolated individual whose specific crime becomes the basis for the belief that the criminal justice system as a whole has failed illustrates several qualities of unscientific thinking: knowledge based on casual observation, knowledge based on overgeneralization, and knowledge based on selective evidence. Moral categories of judgement pose the problem in terms that are unfalsifiable and non-scientific.
The sociological approach is essentially different. It focuses on the effectiveness of different social control strategies for addressing different types of criminal behaviour and the different types of risk to public safety. Thus, from a sociological point of view, it is crucial to think systematically about who commits crimes and why. Also, it is crucial to look at the big picture to see why certain acts are considered normal and others deviant, or why certain acts are criminal and others are not. In a society characterized by large inequalities of power and wealth, as well as large inequalities in arrest and incarceration, an important social justice question needs to be examined regarding who gets to define whom as criminal.
Module 11 has illustrated the sociological imagination at work by examining the “individual troubles” of criminal behaviour and victimization within the social structures that sustain them. In this regard, sociology is able to advocate policy options that are neither hard nor soft, but evidence-based and systematic.
Indigenous sentencing circles: The involvement of Aboriginal communities in the sentencing of Aboriginal offenders.
community-based sentencing: Offenders serve a conditional sentence in the community, usually by performing some sort of community service.
compensatory social control: A means of social control that obliges an offender to pay a victim to compensate for a harm committed.
conciliatory social control: A means of social control that reconciles the parties of a dispute and mutually restores harmony to a social relationship that has been damaged.
consensus crimes: Serious acts of deviance about which there is near-unanimous public agreement.
conflict crimes: Acts of deviance that may be illegal but about which there is considerable public disagreement concerning their seriousness.
control theory: A theory that states social control is directly affected by the strength of social bonds and that deviance results from a feeling of disconnection from society.
corporate crime: Crime committed by white-collar workers in a business environment.
corrections system: The system tasked with supervising individuals who have been arrested, convicted, or sentenced for criminal offences.
court: A system that has the authority to make decisions based on law.
crime: A behaviour that violates official law and is punishable through formal sanctions.
crimes of accommodation: Crimes committed as ways in which individuals cope with conditions of oppression and inequality.
criminal justice system: An organization that exists to enforce a legal code.
critical sociology: Looks to social and economic factors as the causes of crime and deviance.
cultural deviance: Theory that suggests conformity to the prevailing cultural norms of lower-class society causes crime.
deviance: A violation of contextual, cultural, or social norms.
differential association theory: A theory that states individuals learn deviant behaviour from those close to them, who provide models of and opportunities for deviance.
disciplinary social control: Detailed continuous training, control, and observation of individuals to improve their capabilities.
doubly deviant: Women (or other categories of individual) who break both laws and gender (or other) norms.
examination: The use of tests by authorities to assess, document, and know individuals.
folkways: Norms based on everyday cultural customs like etiquette.
formal sanctions: Sanctions that are officially recognized and enforced.
government: Practices by which individuals or organizations seek to govern the behaviour of others or themselves.
hate crimes: Attacks based on a person’s race, religion, or other characteristics.
informal sanctions: Sanctions that occur in face-to-face interactions.
labelling theory: The ascribing of a deviant behaviour to another person by members of society.
law: Norms that are specified in explicit codes and enforced by government bodies.
legal codes: Codes that maintain formal social control through laws.
master status: A label that describes the chief characteristic of an individual.
moral entrepreneur: An individual or group who, in the service of its own interests, publicizes and problematizes “wrongdoing” and has the power to create and enforce rules to penalize wrongdoing.
moral panic: An expanding cycle of deviance, media-generated public fears, and police repression.
mores: Serious moral injunctions or taboos that are broadly recognized in a society.
negative sanctions: Punishments for violating norms.
new penology: Strategies of social control that identify, classify, and manage groupings of offenders by the degree of risk they represent to the general public.
nonviolent crimes: Crimes that involve the destruction or theft of property, but do not use force or the threat of force.
normalization: The process by which norms are used to differentiate, rank, and correct individual behaviour.
normalizing society: A society that uses continual observation, discipline, and correction of its subjects to exercise social control.
overrepresentation: The difference between the proportion of an identifiable group in a particular institution (like the correctional system) and their proportion in the general population.
panopticon: Jeremy Bentham’s “seeing machine” that became the model for the ideal prison.
penal social control: A means of social control that prohibits certain social behaviours and responds to violations with punishment.
penal-welfare complex: The network of institutions that create and exclude inter-generational, criminalized populations on a semi-permanent basis.
police: A civil force in charge of regulating laws and public order at a federal, state, or community level.
positive sanctions: Rewards given for conforming to norms.
power elite: A small group of wealthy and influential people at the top of society who hold the power and resources.
primary deviance: A violation of norms that does not result in any long-term effects on the individual’s self-image or interactions with others.
psychopathy: A personality disorder characterized by anti-social behaviour, diminished empathy, and lack of inhibitions.
racial profiling: The singling out of a particular racial group for extra policing.
recidivism: The likelihood for people to be arrested again after an initial arrest.
restorative justice conferencing: Focuses on establishing a direct, face-to-face connection between the offender and the victim.
sanctions: The means of enforcing rules.
secondary deviance: A change in a person’s self-concept and behaviour after his or her actions are labelled as deviant by members of society.
secondary victimization: After an initial victimization, secondary victimization is incurred through criminal justice processes.
self-report study: Collection of data acquired using voluntary response methods, such as questionnaires or telephone interviews.
situational crime control: Strategies of social control that redesign spaces where crimes or deviance could occur to minimize the risk of crimes occurring there.
social control: The regulation and enforcement of norms.
social deviations: Deviant acts that are not illegal but are widely regarded as harmful.
social disorganization theory: Theory that asserts crime occurs in communities with weak social ties and the absence of social control.
social diversions: Acts that violate social norms but are generally regarded as harmless.
social order: An arrangement of practices and behaviours on which society’s members base their daily lives.
sociopathy: A personality disorder characterized by anti-social behaviour, diminished empathy, and lack of inhibitions.
strain theory: A theory that addresses the relationship between having socially acceptable goals and having socially acceptable means to reach those goals.
street crime: Crime committed by average people against other people or organizations, usually in public spaces.
surveillance: Various means used to make the lives and activities of individuals visible to authorities.
therapeutic social control: A means of social control that uses therapy to return individuals to a normal state.
traditional Aboriginal justice: Centred on healing and building community rather than retribution.
twin myths of rape: The notion that women lie about sexual assault out of malice toward men and women will say “no” to sexual relations when they really mean “yes”.
victimless crime: Activities against the law that do not result in injury to any individual other than the person who engages in them.
violent crimes (also known as “crimes against a person”): Based on the use of force or the threat of force.
white-collar crime: Crimes committed by high status or privileged members of society.
zones of transition: Areas within the city characterized by high levels of migration, social diversity, and social change.
11.5 Further Research
Although we rarely think of it in this way, deviance can have a positive effect on society. Check out the Positive Deviance Initiative, a program initiated by Tufts University to promote social movements around the world that strive to improve people’s lives: http://www.positivedeviance.org/.
The Vancouver safe injection site is a controversial strategy to address the public health concerns associated with intravenous drug use. Read about the perspectives that promote and critique the safe injection site model at the following websites. Can you determine how the positions expressed by the different sides of the issue fit within the different sociological perspectives on deviance? What is the best way to deal with the problems of addiction?
- City of Vancouver’s “Four Pillars Drug Strategy”: http://vancouver.ca/people-programs/four-pillars-drug-strategy.aspx
- Health Officers Council of British Columbia, “A Public Health Approach to Drug Control in Canada” [PDF]: http://www.cfdp.ca/bchoc.pdf
- Drug Prevention Network of Canada: http://www.dpnoc.ca/
- Centre for Addictions Research of B.C. (CARBC): http://www.uvic.ca/research/centres/carbc/
How is crime data collected in Canada? Read about the victimization survey used by Statistics Canada and take the survey yourself: http://www23.statcan.gc.ca/imdb/p2SV.pl?Function=getSurvey&SDDS=4504.
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|Type of Hate Crime||Number reported to Police|
|Race or Ethnicity||690|