New Research on Violence

Posted on Categories Criminal Law & Process, Public

The new issue of Criminology features several interesting papers relating to violence and its control. This has been a hot topic here in Milwaukee over the past few months. Perhaps some of the emerging policy proposals would benefit from the new research.

First, an unusual controlled experiment in St. Louis provides support for “hot spots” policing, especially when officers proactively engage with citizens in the high-crime neighborhoods. Researchers working with the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department randomly assigned hot spots of elevated firearm violence to one of three conditions: (1) a control group; (2) an enhanced visibility group in which officers were directed to patrol slowly through the targeted areas, but to refrain from self-initiated activity unless a crime was in progress; and (3) an enhanced activity group in which officers were directed both to increase patrols and to increase self-initiated activities, which might include arrests, pedestrian stops, vehicle checks, and so forth.  

Firearm violence actually dropped in all three sets of hot spots over the experiment’s time period, and there was no statistically significant difference between the reductions in the control group and enhanced visibility group. However, holding other variables constant, the enhanced activity group experienced a sharper drop than the other groups. As the researchers put it, their data “imply that directed patrol alone may have little deterrent value, at least with respect to firearm assault, unless coupled with more vigorous, purposeful, or coercive forms of police behavior” (441).

Notably, they found no evidence that enhanced police activity in certain hot spots at certain times simply displaced firearm violence to other times or other neighborhoods.

The research, which may arguably provide support for controversial stop-and-frisk policing strategies, is reported in Richard Rosenfeld et al., The Effects of Directed Patrol and Self-Initiated Enforcement on Firearm Violence: A Randomized Controlled Study of Hot Spot Policing, 52 Criminology 428 (2014).

On the other hand, one of the recurrent concerns with more proactive policing is that it predictably leads to more arrests of juveniles for minor offenses, which may prove counterproductive over the long run. Support for this hypothesis comes from Akiva M. Lieberman et al., Labeling Effects of First Juvenile Arrests: Secondary Deviance and Secondary Sanctioning, 52 Criminology 345 (2014). Here is the abstract:

A growing literature suggests that juvenile arrests perpetuate offending and increase the likelihood of future arrests. The effect on subsequent arrests is generally regarded as a product of the perpetuation of criminal offending. However, increased rearrest also may reflect differential law enforcement behavior. Using longitudinal data from the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods (PHDCN) together with official arrest records, the current study estimates the effects of first arrests on both reoffending and rearrest. Propensity score methods were used to control differences between arrestees and nonarrestees and to minimize selection bias. Among 1,249 PHDCN youths, 58 individuals were first arrested during the study period; 43 of these arrestees were successfully matched to 126 control cases that were equivalent on a broad set of individual, family, peer, and neighborhood factors. We find that first arrests increased the likelihood of both subsequent offending and subsequent arrest, through separate processes. The effects on rearrest are substantially greater and are largely independent of the effects on reoffending, which suggests that labels trigger “secondary sanctioning” processes distinct from secondary deviance processes. Attempts to ameliorate deleterious labeling effects should include efforts to dampen their escalating punitive effects on societal responses.

Much research on violence over the past generation has focused on the “cycle of violence” — the tendency of victims of childhood abuse and neglect to become perpetrators of violent crime later in life. (This concept, of course, has been part of the recent public discussion of corporal punishment in the wake of the Adrian Peterson controversy.) In Varieties of Violent Behavior, 52 Criminology 313 (2014), Cathy Spatz Widom provides a helpful review of this research and discusses some of her own ongoing work on the cycle of violence. She observes that there is nothing strictly deterministic about child abuse: “Most maltreated children in my sample (and in other studies) did not become violent. At the mean age of 32.5 years, 82 percent of the maltreated children in our sample did not have an arrest for violence . . . .” (319). At the same time, abuse is a significant risk factor, and Widom concludes that “violence prevention policies and programs that target abused and neglected children are warranted, given the prominent role of [abuse and neglect] in the backgrounds of [] violent offenders.” (313)

A final paper addresses another important predictor of criminal propensities: lack of self-control. In Self-Control Through Emerging Adulthood: Instability, Multidimensionality, and Criminological Significance, 52 Criminology 450 (2014), Callie Burt and coauthors consider the ability of self-control to improve over time. Earlier work had posited that a person’s self-control, relative to peers, is generally fixed by age ten. However, examining subjects up to age 25, Burt et al. found strong evidence that self-control remains unstable well into young adulthood. They further found that the characteristic conventionally labeled “self-control” is actually comprised of two distinct propensities, impulsivity and sensation-seeking, which follow different developmental courses and which are independently correlated with criminal offending.

Among other things, the research lends support to the Supreme Court’s recent Eighth Amendment jurisprudence on juvenile sentencing, which has been based, in part, on the belief that there is always hope that juvenile offenders will change for the better; no matter how bad they look now, it is too early to say that they are fixed in a long-term course of offending. Indeed, the evidence of significant “plasticity” in self-control through the early twenties suggests that the Court has been too conservative in drawing the line for Eighth Amendment protections at age eighteen.

Cross posted at Life Sentences Blog.

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