Crime Is Not the Problem: Lethal Violence in America

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Overview


Year after year, in poll after poll, crime tops the list of American anxieties. Indeed, crime is seen by many people as the number one problem in the United States, a threat to the quality of life unparalleled in any other developed country. Now two legal scholars, Franklin E. Zimring and Gordon Hawkins, have conducted intensive research on the question and have reached a startling conclusion--crime is not the problem. America's great problem, they argue, is lethal violence.
In Crime is Not the Problem, Zimring and Hawkins revolutionize the way we think about crime and violence--by forcing us to distinguish between crime and violence. The authors reveal that when we compare the United States to other industrialized nations, in most categories of nonviolent crime (burglary, theft, and other property offenses), American crime rates are comparable--even lower, in some cases. Moreover, this general trend holds true when we compare specific cities of roughly the same size (New York and London, Los Angeles and Sydney). As the authors show, crimes like burglary and theft are a part of modern urban life worldwide. Only when it comes to lethal violence does the United States outpace other Western nations, with homicide rates many, many times greater. Equally interesting, the authors find that most killings in America are unconnected to criminal activity (that is, more murders stem from arguments than from break-ins or muggings). But if high property-crime rates don't kill innocent victims in other countries, why are the risks so much greater that victims will be killed or maimed in the United States? And what can be done to bring the death rate from American violence down to tolerable levels? To address these questions, the authors take a hard look at what is believed about the causes of lethal violence. Here, too, the conventional wisdom about the causes of violence is subject to revision. The impact of television and movie violence on rates of homicide is wildly over-rated, as Zimring and Hawkins demonstrate with data from Europe and Japan. By contrast, it is hard to overestimate the importance of guns--used in 70% of all killings--in the distinctively high rates of deadly violence in America. Reducing lethal violence required different tactics than fighting a general war on crime, the authors conclude. They argue that traditional law and order, tough on crime campaigns blur the distinctions between lethal violence and other offenses, they argue. Lawmakers need to craft a sophisticated response that specifically addresses death dealing mayhem.
In Crime is Not the Problem, Zimring and Hawkins reshape the debate about crime in the United States, throwing sharp new light on old questions and suggesting new directions for public policy. By making the crucial distinction between lethal violence and crime in general, they clear the ground for a targeted, far more effective response to the real crisis in American society.
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Product Details

Meet the Author

About the Authors:
Franklin E. Zimring is the William F. Simon Professor of Law and Director of the Earl Warren Legal Institute at the University of California at Berkeley. Gordon Hawkins is Senior Fellow at the Earl Warren Legal Institute at the University of California at Berkeley.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
Introduction
I The American Difference 1
1 What Americans Fear 3
2 Violence and the Growth of Crime: Some Lessons from Recent History 21
3 Transnational Patterns 34
4 American Lethal Violence: A Profile 51
5 New Perspectives on African-American Violence 73
II Correlates and Causes 89
6 On Causes and Prevention 91
7 Firearms and Lethal Violence 106
8 On Mass Media Effects 124
9 Only in America? Illicit Drugs and the Death Rate from Violence 138
III Prevention 157
10 Lethal Violence and the Criminal Law 159
11 Strategies of Prevention 185
App. 1 Explaining Distributions of Violence versus Levels of Violence 217
App. 2 Assault in New York City and London 219
App. 3 Patterns of Three Violent Crimes in the United States 222
App. 4 Race and Lethal Violence: A Five-City Comparison 233
App. 5 Studies of Mass Communications and Homicide 237
App. 6 Drugs and Homicide in the District of Columbia: A Research Note 248
References 253
Index 261
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First Chapter

CHAPTER ONE

What Americans Fear

By longstanding habit, Americans use the terms "crime" and "violence" interchangeably. When expressing concern about urban conditions we commonly talk about "the crime problem" or "the violence problem" as if they were the same thing. When drive-by shootings create newspaper headlines, we demand that our elected officials do something about crime.

At the core of this interchangeable usage of crime and violence is the belief that crime and lethal violence are two aspects of the same problem. It is widely believed that there is much more crime of all kinds in the United States than in other developed countries. With so much crime and so many criminals, the high rates of lethal violence in the United States seem all but inevitable to many observers.

The mission of this chapter is to demonstrate that rates of crime are not greatly different in the United States from those in other developed nations and that our extremely high rates of lethal violence are a separate phenomenon, a distinct social problem that is the real source of fear and anger in American life. The chapter will provide a review of some objective conditions of crime and lethal violence in the United States and link these empirical patterns to the subjective dimensions of fear in urban America. The first section of this chapter will provide data on crime and lethal violence in international perspective. This section provides a preview of the extensive research findings that will be presented in Chapters 2 to 5.

The second section of this chapter presents a simple theory of why lethal violence is a major concern in developed nations as well as a problem of great importance in the United States. The third part of the chapter considers some complicating factors in the relationship between crime, violence, and citizen fears. We identify a process of categorical contagion that leads citizens to fear lethal violence in a broader variety of settings than those that carry any substantial risk to life and limb. To live in an environment where robbery presents a serious hazard to its victims seems to provoke citizens to fear for their lives even from particular forms of crime that do not place their victims at mortal risk.

The final section of this chapter shows that general crackdowns on crime are inefficient and potentially self-defeating methods of reducing the risks of lethal violence. It thus appears that one natural reaction to lethal violence, a heightened fear of all kinds of crime, may lead to ineffective responses to the life-threatening behavior that is the core concern of the fearful public. Citizen fears may systematically point public policy toward crime in the wrong direction.

Crime and Violence in International Perspective
Los Angeles and Sydney

Los Angeles is the second largest city in the United States with a 1992 population estimated at 3.6 million for its crime statistics reporting unit. It is a multiracial, multicultural city on the Pacific Coast with a crime rate that by most accounts is its most serious civic problem. Sydney, Australia, is also a city of 3.6 million located on the Pacific Coast of the continent. While multicultural by Australian standards, the ethnic and language mixture falls far short of that in Los Angeles. Crime in Sydney is a serious annoyance, but not a major threat to the continued viability of the city or to the health and welfare of its citizens.

Figure 1.1 compares the volume of four crimes reported by the police in Sydney and Los Angeles by expressing the number of offenses in Sydney as a percentage of the Los Angeles crime volume. Since the population of the two cities is the same, the crime volume comparison is also a crime rate comparison. The theft category reported at the far left of Figure 1.1 includes most forms of stealing that are unaggravated by elements that the law regards as increasing the gravity of the offense. This is the most common offense reported in all cities, and the two jurisdictions under review are no exception. Sydney reports just over 90,000 theft incidents, roughly three-quarters of the volume reported in Los Angeles.

Burglary is an aggravated form of theft where the offender breaks and enters private property in order to steal. The crime statistics for Sydney report the offense under two headings: breaking and entering a dwelling, and breaking and entering a building that is not a dwelling. The volume of such crimes in Sydney during 1992 exceeded 63,000, about 10 percent more than the number of burglaries reported in Los Angeles.

The pattern noted for burglary contrasts sharply with robbery, the other major category of aggravated property crime. Robbery is defined as the taking of property from the person of another by force or by the threat of force. In 1992 Los Angeles reported 39,508 robberies while Sydney reported 4,942, one-eighth the Los Angeles rate. The ratio of burglaries to robberies in Los Angeles is just under 3 to 2; the ratio of burglaries to robberies in Sydney is greater than 12 to 1.

The final crime category reported in Figure 1.1 is for homicides resulting from intentional injury. There were fifty-three such offenses reported by the police in Sydney during 1992, a crime volume equal to 5 percent of the 1,094 homicides reported by the Los Angeles police that same year. The difference between the two cities in rates of criminal homicide exceeds an order of magnitude. The citizens of Sydney can thus live with their high crime rate in relative comfort because they are not dying from it in large numbers.

The major statistical conclusion one draws from an inspection of Figure 1.1 is that the nature of the comparison between Sydney and Los Angeles depends on what is being compared. For theft and burglary the two cities are quite similar. For robbery and homicide they are vastly dissimilar.

The substantive conclusion to be drawn from this statistical pattern can be stated in two ways. It seems beyond dispute that what separates the two cities is not the amount of crime they experience, but the character of the crime they experience. But the point can be put more sharply than that: What is distinctive and threatening in Los Angeles is not a crime problem but a violence problem.

New York City and London

New York City is the largest city in the United States with a population at 7 million. London has a city population of 6.6 million. Figure 1.2 shows London crime rates per 100,000 using New York City rates as a standard for comparison. The statistical comparison in Figure 1.2 is even more surprising than that concerning Los Angeles and Sydney, and to the same effect. London has more theft than New York City and a rate of burglary 57 percent higher. But the robbery rate in London is less than one-fifth the robbery rate in New York City and the homicide rate in London is less than one-tenth the New York City figure.

The total number of offenses per 100,000 citizens in Figure 1.2 is higher in London than in New York City. If total crime rates were the problem, Londoners should live in fear or New Yorkers in relative complacency. They have the same magnitude of crime. But with death rates eleven times as high as London, the population of New York City is far from comfortable. Lethal violence is New York City's distinctive problem, not crime, and lower rates of general theft are no consolation for huge death toll differences.

If readers are wondering whether these data are selective and misleading crime rates, or are numbers that are produced by the peculiarities of different reporting systems, the next set of comparisons should provide some reassurance that our city comparisons are part of a broad and consistent pattern.

Twenty Countries

We can show clearly that America's special problem is violence and not crime by comparing the results of a twenty-nation survey of citizens about the rate at which they were victims of crime with World Health Organization data on death from assaults for the same nations. Figure 1.3 see p. 8 shows the violent death rates for each group of five nations with the highest crime levels, then the next two highest, and finally the lowest crime categories.

There are several indications that a country's crime rate is substantially independent of its rate of lethal violence. First, the variation in violent death rate is quite large within the separate crime rate categories. Within the group of highest crime nations, the homicide rates vary by a factor of eleven, in the next group by a factor of five, in the third group by a factor of three, and in the lowest crime group by a factor of eight. In contrast, the median homicide rates for the four different crime categories are clustered between 1.3 and 2.2. So knowing which crime rate category a country belongs in does not tell one anything much about what rate of violent death that country suffers.

And knowing a country's violent death rate does not predict much about its crime rate. The lowest death rate country England has a crime rate just over average. The next lowest violence nation is Japan, which has the lowest crime rate also. The third lowest death rate country is the Netherlands, in the highest crime rate group. The pattern is just as opaque at the top of the violence distribution. The most violent country, the United States, has a high crime rate as well. The next most violent country, Northern Ireland, is in the lowest crime rate group.

This data set provides a multinational example of the central point that lethal violence is the crucial problem in the United States. It shows the United States clustered with other industrial countries in crime rate, but head and shoulders above the rest in violent death.

It also suggests that lethal violence might be the best predictor of citizen fear on a transnational basis. Where would you rather live when examining the map of Figure 1.3? In England with its high crime rate and 0.5 deaths per 100,000 or in Northern Ireland with a much lower crime rate and nine times the death rate? Your money or your life?

Judging from Figure 1.3, the United States has about the same rate of crime and prevalence of criminality as the Netherlands and Australia. But ours is by far the most dangerous country to live in. We currently have a Netherlands-size crime problem and a king-size violence problem that threatens the social organization of our cities. Which problem is at the root of citizen fear in the United States? Which problem should we try to solve?

Three Dimensions of Fear

What types of loss from crime produce fear and anxiety among citizens? A common-sense calculus would emphasize three aspects of the types of criminal harms that are of the largest significance in provoking fear:

1. the importance of the interest threatened

2. the capacity of insurance and compensation schemes to restore the welfare of crime victims, and

3. the extent to which potential crime victims feel they can control their risks of loss by altering behavior.

For a mixture of obvious and nonobvious reasons, lethal violence is the most frightening threat in every modern industrial nation. The obvious reason why lethal violence is a priority concern is the importance people attach to personal survival. Physical survival, security from assault, freedom from the pain inflicted by serious intentional injuries are among the most basic interests citizens have. On this basis alone, we would expect life-threatening assault to be at the top of any citizen's fears about crime.

But the effectiveness of insurance and compensation schemes to ease the pain of property crime when compared with the impossibility of restoring life and health is an additional reason why serious violence is the central reason citizens fear predation. The security of property from criminal trespass can be achieved in the modern state by creating safe methods of preserving property interests and by facilitating insurance and other loss-spreading mechanisms to function when property is taken. Most economic assets cannot be taken by a thief in the age of the bank account and real estate title. Those chattels that remain at risk--the automobile, the home computer, and the bicycle--are usually the subject of automobile or household insurance. The percentage of gross national product that is redistributed by larceny and burglary in developed countries is quite small. When one of us asked a group of students, "What happens when someone steals your new BMW?" one student replied, "You get a better BMW," an arch response that nonetheless reflects social perceptions about automobile insurance with some accuracy. For most citizens, replacing one BMW with another comes quite close to making the crime victim whole; auto theft is amenable to a process we would call commensurate compensation.

By contrast, no amount of life insurance will give the insured back his life if he is killed in a street robbery. So even when programs are in place to deal with the financial costs of serious violence, the lack of commensurate compensation will make those criminal harms that cannot be reversed more worrisome to potential victims. In this sense, one natural byproduct of extensive insurance and property security is that citizens will concentrate their crime anxieties on those losses that cannot be effectively redressed. The special priority accorded to threats like homicide, forcible rape, and life-endangering injury will be more apparent in a system where most citizens have little to fear from standard forms of property crime.

The third dimension that we believe influences the level of fear expressed about particular criminal harms is the degree to which potential victims feel they can control the risks of becoming victims. The prospect of what the newspapers call "random violence" is particularly problematic because it suggests that there is no set of precautions a potential victim can take to reduce the personal risk of victimization. The more members of the public feel the risks of a particular harm are within their control, the more secure citizens will feel about their personal situation. But if potential victims feel there is no way they can take action to modify risks, this will heighten their anxiety about a particular risk. Later in the book, we will suggest that one reason citizens fear stranger violence more than they fear being killed by friends or family is because they feel more control over their choice of personal acquaintances, while the strangers they encounter are not as easy to choose or to reject.

If these three dimensions of risk are the significant factors in predicting citizen fear, two points of general applicability can be made about lethal violence as a crime control priority in developed nations. First, there is good reason to suppose that life-threatening violence is the most feared aspect of the threat of crime, even in countries where the rate of homicide is quite low. While an American observer might be amused to find fear of gunshot wounds is a focal concern in Japan, where there were thirty-two gun homicides in 1995 Kristof 1996, the small chance of a major harm that cannot be effectively compensated or avoided might be more worrisome than less catastrophic injuries, even if these occur with much greater regularity. It may thus be rational for all of the countries covered in Figure 1.3 to hold lethal violence as the number one concern.

A second general point is that a special concern with lethal violence may be one consequence of successful social and economic development. The greater the success of a society in producing and distributing property, the larger the presence of insurance and compensation, the less average citizens will need to worry about their automobiles and their bicycles. This allows public concern about crime to return to bedrock worries about physical security. So the fact that lethal violence is a social control priority is not always a measure of social pathology. The greater the success of crime prevention and loss spreading, the more likely it will be that security of life and limb are the residual concerns of the citizenry.

So life-threatening violence should be a central concern in all developed nations, but nowhere in the Western world should lethal violence generate the level of attention it demands in the United States. Even if the rate of lethal violence is not relevant to whether such acts are the chief concern of law enforcement, the sheer amount of lethal violence is an important determinant of how much public concern is justified. A homicide rate five times the average of the developed nations and twice that of Northern Ireland in a time of troubles is an important cause of concern for the major developed nation in the modern world. Chronically high rates of lethal violence generate insecurities in the United States that are qualitatively different from those found in other advanced countries. Lethal violence is the most serious social control problem in every developed nation; it is by far a more serious problem in the United States than in any society with which we would care to compare ourselves.

Crime, Violence, and Citizen Fear

One sharp contrast between Sydney and Los Angeles invites us to consider the relationship between rates of life-threatening personal violence and public perceptions of the seriousness of crime as a problem. As measured by the political importance of crime as an election issue, or the degree to which fear of crime is mentioned as a major disorganizing influence on urban life, Sydney does not seem to have a significant crime problem. To be sure, housebreakers are not popular figures in New South Wales and complaints about crime are quite common, but terror is not.

Los Angeles is a city where fear of crime and of criminals is arguably the single most important social and political issue for the majority of citizens. Scientific surveys of public opinion reflect this difference to some degree, but they do not capture the palpable difference between crime as an annoyance in Australia and crime as a fundamental threat to social life in Los Angeles. The statewide Field polling organization in California finds crime to be the number one problem reported in the state; concern about policy toward criminals dominated the 1994 California elections to an extent that would be unthinkable at any level of government in Australia. The intensity of citizen concern in California is also reflected in the demand for substantial changes in criminal justice policy. The prison population in California grew 400 percent in the fifteen years prior to the 1994 elections, but California voters nevertheless overwhelmingly supported a referendum in 1994 that required a twenty-five years to life sentence for anyone convicted of a third felony if the offender's previous convictions had been as serious as housebreaking.

Since general levels of nonviolent crime in Sydney and Los Angeles are closely similar, why not conclude that it is levels of lethal violence rather than of crime generally that determine the degree of public fear? Why else would similar numbers of criminals and rates of crime lead to such a sharp cleavage in public response? The question is an important one, but far from easy to answer with confidence. Evidence regarding the relationship between rates of different types of crime and public attitudes is surprisingly sparse, and the specific question of the influence on attitudes of rates of violence, rather than rates of crime generally, has not been addressed systematically.

There are two different issues involved in determining the relationship between rates of violence and public fear: the salience of lethal violence as a focal point for citizen fear, and the influence of rates of violence on levels of public concern about violence. On the first issue the answer seems clear: when citizens are afraid of crime it is life-threatening, personal violence that dominates their attention. On the second issue, the evidence is far from clear. While the objective risks of violence undoubtedly influence the level of public fear, so also do many other variables. And the extent to which differential levels of public concern can be explained by differences in objective risk is not known.

To characterize concern about serious personal violence as the dominant image in public fear of crime may seem like an overstatement. Chapter 4 will document the relatively low levels of danger to life associated with residential burglary as a crime, but residential burglary is a crime that citizens greatly fear in California. Indeed, including residential burglary as a triggering felony in the California "three strikes" sentencing proposal was vigorously supported by the public even though it tripled the cost of the program Zimring 1994. Is this not evidence that nonviolent threats are as salient to individuals as violent ones?

Probably not. Public fear of burglary is generated by images of the worst thing that could happen in the course of a housebreaking, rather that the kind of things that usually do happen when burglars appear. The majority of burglarized dwellings are unoccupied at the time of the invasion, but the image of burglary that provokes public fear is of the burglary of an occupied dwelling. The great majority of burglars would react nonviolently in any interaction with household members, but the image of burglary that produces high levels of citizen fear finds the victim defenseless in bed and at risk of murder. It is the worst-case burglar that provokes those citizens who express high levels of fear regarding residential burglary. This is an issue that could be explored by carefully constructed survey research. To date, however, the question of what images preoccupy citizens with high levels of fear regarding particular types of crime has not been investigated.

But fear of the worst-case burglar does not explain the contrast between Sydney and Los Angeles. Why would housebreakers provoke much more fear in Los Angeles than in Sydney? One reason might be the fact that many people have homogeneous images of "the criminal." That is to say that they do not think of robbers and burglars as different sorts of people, but rather imagine the criminal offender who threatens their sense of security as a composite of the personal characteristics of the criminal offenders they have heard about. If this homogeneity of image phenomenon is operative, citizens who live in environments where homicidal attacks are common will fear all kinds of contact with criminal offenders much more than citizens whose composite image of the criminal offender derives from a general environment that experiences less lethal violence.

In an urban environment where armed robbery frequently leads to the death of victims, the purse snatcher and the burglar will acquire much of the threatening character of the robber because the composite generalized image of the criminal that conditions public fear acquires the characteristics of the lethal armed robber. The fear generated by the kidnap and murder of Polly Klaas in California provokes long sentences for residential burglars because the burglar in the citizen's scenario has acquired the characteristics of Polly Klaas's killer.

High levels of interpersonal violence could thus generate a process we call categorical contagion. This is the agency whereby citizens come to fear many forms of criminal behavior because they imagine them all committed by extremely violent protagonists. Lower general levels of violence may be associated with less pressure toward categorical contagion because there is less in the way of frightening violence to condition the citizen's image of the criminal threat.

Processes of categorical contagion may operate in social life well beyond the frontiers of the criminal code. Just as personal safety and bodily security are the core concerns of fear of crime, concern about vulnerability to assault can produce fear of a wide variety of social encounters that include rudeness and incivility and even face-to-face contact with strangers in the streets if those strangers are seen as threatening. If a person carries profound feelings of physical vulnerability into a social setting, even ambiguous or innocuous behavior can produce substantial levels of anxiety.

It is also important to recognize that this process of categorical contagion may be a two-way street in which a high level of anxiety about strangers or face-to-face interaction may express itself as a fear of becoming a victim of a violent crime. Just as substantial anxieties about being robbed or attacked may make a person apprehensive about encountering strangers, an intense but nonspecific fear of strangers or foreigners or black people may produce more specific concerns that the subjects of our apprehension intend to assault us.

Some Social Causes of Fear

But what social circumstances predict variations in citizen concern about safety in a modern industrial society? This is a complicated question and one that has not been squarely addressed in the social science literature on the fear of crime. We would expect at least three major influences on the level of fear regarding serious crime: 1 the amount and seriousness of violent crime, 2 the level of fear-arousing social conditions in the immediate physical environment of the subject, and 3 the amount and perceived seriousness of fear-arousing cues in the mass media and the personal social universe of the subject.

How important are variations in actual risk in the mix of cues that produce levels of citizen fear of violence? We would expect variations in the risk of serious violence to be a major determinant of levels of fear that exert influence in a variety of ways. The higher the rate of serious violence, the larger the chance that the average citizen will have personal experience as a crime victim or be in some social relationship to a violence victim. The larger the risk of serious violence, the stronger the associations between fear of violence and various fear-arousing cues in the citizen's immediate social environment. The higher the number of people who get shot, stabbed, or mugged, the more fear-arousing will be citizen contact with boom boxes, broken windows, or threatening-looking strangers. Finally, we would expect that both the number of social cues and the amount of media attention to violence would be directly influenced by the rate and seriousness of violence, although we are more confident of this relationship in the contacts of the citizen than in the quantum of media cues about violence.

We would expect to find a positive association over time and cross-sectionally between risks of life-threatening violence and the mix of cues that determine levels of public fear. But variations in risk are by no means the only influences on levels of public consciousness in mass society. Processes of categorical contagion will link levels of public fear of violence to fluctuations in other social conditions that make people anxious and insecure. Further, to the extent that the character and quantity of media attention to violence is a variable that fluctuates independently of trends in risk, this will also influence levels of fear, particularly when citizens lack more direct experience. It thus seems probable that fear of violence in the 1990s is, to some extent, a media event independent of changes in other social conditions. We would also expect that variations in media coverage will be of larger importance in determining levels of concern and fear amongst groups that lack significant first- and second-hand experience of violence than among persons with more direct experience.

We do not know the maximum level of public fear that can be produced and sustained in an environment of general social anxiety, but low levels of lethal interpersonal violence. An attempt to import an American-style "law and order" campaign into English electoral politics would be a natural experiment to see whether fear of lethal violence can be induced and sustained at high levels without a high death rate from violence as a feature of the social environment.

A similar issue concerns the generality of fear induced by incivility and disorder. James Q. Wilson and George Kelling argued persuasively in their "Broken Windows" article that indications of incivility and disorder produce citizen fear and the demand for law enforcement and social control Wilson and Kelling 1982. One reason such indications could arouse fear is that they convey to many persons the message that they are vulnerable to more direct and more violent predation. But will the level of fear produced by disorder and incivility be as great where rates of lethal violence are low as they will be where those rates are high? The context in which the broken-window argument was made was urban conditions with high rates of lethal violence. The extent to which fear of lethal violence and fear of concentrated threats to public order feed off each other should be a priority concern in the social psychology of crime fears. And the social psychology of citizen fears should be an important topic for scholarly research.

Crime Policy as Violence Policy

Life-threatening violence is, of course, against the public policy of the modern state in all but exceptional cases, but so are a wide variety of acts that range from larceny to illegal drug taking to sexual exploitation of the immature. What, if anything, is wrong with public policy that treats violence only as one of the many crime problems that are best addressed by police, prosecutors, and prisons?

This section outlines some of the difficulties associated with misdefining American violence as solely a crime problem. In pursuing this analysis, we do not deny that crime in the United States is destructive, costly, and disorganizing. Rather, we argue that it is the violent strain in American social life which causes the special destruction and disorganization produced by American crime.

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