Poverty, Ethnicity, and Violent Crime

Poverty, Ethnicity, and Violent Crime

Poverty, Ethnicity, and Violent Crime

Poverty, Ethnicity, and Violent Crime


Violent crime in America is more strongly associated with poverty and with changing social and economic conditions than with race or ethnicity, and patterns of violence are changing. These are among the conclusions of Poverty, Ethnicity, and Violent Crime, a searching analysis that draws on scholarly research from all the social and behavioral sciences. By framing his analysis in terms of different levels of explanation, James Short is able to identify fundamental causal conditions and processes that result in violent crime. The book also examines current policies and political and scholarly controversies concerning the control of violent crime. This book can serve as a text or as supplementary reading for a variety of criminology courses.


This book began as an essay prepared for the Panel on Understanding and Control of Violent Behavior, a group assembled by the Committee on Law and Justice, one of several committees of the National Research Council's Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education (CBASSE) (see Reiss and Roth 1993). However, the book's roots go back at least another quarter of a century to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson following the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy. I served that commission as co-director of research (with Marvin E. Wolfgang) (see Short 1976).

In still another sense the book is a product of a lifetime of training, research, and experience. Violent behavior has been a personal preoccupation for most of my adult life, including the time before I entered graduate school at the University of Chicago in 1947.

I grew up in a small Midwestern town where one could safely walk the streets at night and serious violence was virtually unheard of (Short 1969, 1990b). Like many others, I learned a lot about violence during and after World War II. In early 1946, while I was serving in the occupation forces in Japan, a civilian had been assaulted and was brought, nearly dead, to the small headquarters I shared with a platoon of U.S. Marines. I contacted battalion headquarters and secured the emergency services of a hospital corpsman who brought with him life-saving medical supplies.

Local police had brought the man to me because he had identified his assailants as American servicemen, and we were the only such in the immediate area. After arranging for medical treatment, my platoon sergeant and I shook down the entire platoon and quickly discovered the culprits--two marines, barely out of their teens. Their motive apparently was money, although the amount stolen was paltry. They confessed readily but neither they nor anyone else could understand why they had committed the crime.

I was distressed not only for the victim but because I had come to like these young men in the few months since I had become their platoon leader. Their bizarre behavior seemed totally inconsistent with their performance on the job and with what I thought I knew about them. The situation became even more bizarre when they asked me--in effect, their arresting officer--to defend them at their court martial. I agreed to represent them and, because they confessed so . . .

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