Crime in American Culture
A war on crime? The last 10 to 20 years the metaphor we use to talk about crime has been predominantly war: war on crime. This metaphor assumes:
- There are new military technologies that will help us deal with the problem.
- The offender is “the enemy” and anything we do to them is OK, because they are not one of us.
Researchers have found that over 90% of Americans have committed crimes which would get them prison time at some point in their life.
Frequency of Violent Crime
Historically, there was an uncharacteristic trough in the violent crime statistics in the mid-20th century. The current rate is more normal for American society when viewed over the long term, while the rate of violent crime is stable or possibly decreasing a small amount.
Then why do we think violent crime is increasing?
- Police statistics indicate a rise in violent crime, based on reporting rates. But the percentage of victims who actually report the crimes against them has also risen, leading to elevations of police statistics.
- There is an increase in random kinds of killings, and of lethal violence among youth.
- We see so much media coverage of crime that it gives us the impression that it’s very frequent and out of control.
How does the media influence our view of violent crime?
- The electronic media is better equipped to report events than issues. It is easy to report on a murder, but much more difficult to cover the issues that lead up to a person becoming a murderer (even the experts may disagree as to why a person commits a violent act).
- Consequently the average TV viewer sees more crime events than analysis on the news.
- Researchers have found that people who watch more TV are more afraid of violent crime than non-TV viewers. They have an inflated view of the risks of our society, because of this exposure.
A Culture of Respect
A sociologist in Philadelphia, Elijah Anderson, says that there is in our American society a whole culture growing up that’s based on respect; it’s the code of the streets. What this code assumes is:
- There’s a limited supply of respect in society.
- The more violent you are, the more violent you appear, the more respect you get.
- One way of getting respect is based on what you have and take away from other people.
A lot of what we’re seeing is an attempt to find respect in an illegitimate way in a society that’s not giving people respect. If you don’t have any way to become somebody then you’re going to look for so-called illegitimate ways to do it. And a lot of the violence and theft that we see is a way to gain recognition in a society that denies respect most of the time.
I look at my clients [death row inmates], I see people who were physically abused at three and nobody did anything. Sexually assaulted at seven and nobody did anything. Physically and sexually abused at 11 and nobody did anything. Hopeless and becoming drug-addicted at 14 and nobody did anything. Finally striking out against somebody at 16, and now everybody wants to do something –they want to line him up and execute him. We don’t recognize that nobody comes out of the womb with a mission to kill.
We’ve got kids who’ve been sentenced to death as young as 15 years old for crimes they’ve committed in the state of Alabama. And local press and prosecutors will not only talk about how it’s right for them to seek the death penalty against a 15-year-old, but they’ll get supported and congratulated and applauded for having “the guts” to seek the death penalty for a 15-year-old. Really, where we need some guts is for somebody to stand up and say, “Look, I recognize that this kid has been abused all his life and we’ve got to do something now. We missed him when he was three. We missed him when he was seven. We missed him when he was 12. We’ve got him now that he’s 15. We need to do something to respond to this victimization, not contribute to it by executing him.”