Academic journal article Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology

Why Do Criminals Obey the Law? the Influence of Legitimacy and Social Networks on Active Gun Offenders

Academic journal article Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology

Why Do Criminals Obey the Law? the Influence of Legitimacy and Social Networks on Active Gun Offenders

Article excerpt


Why do criminals break the law? Although answers to this question typically incorporate individual, contextual, and socio-psychological explanations, the dominant sociological explanations tend to rely heavily on neighborhood structural considerations. That is, most sociologists look to correlates between crime and delinquency on the one hand, and neighborhood social conditions, formal and informal social control, socialization processes, and properties of social networks on the other, to explain why offenders offend. (1) A shorthand way to summarize this rich research tradition is to say that individuals are more likely to break the law when they live in neighborhoods bereft of social, economic, and human capital, when their social networks are saturated with criminal peers and opportunities, and when they are socialized into dense delinquent networks that do not fully admonish deviant behaviors.

Why do people obey the law? This question is not merely the former question's mirror image. An emergent group of social psychologists and legal scholars have undertaken this inquiry and have considered it to be fundamentally different from the question we asked at the outset. An impressive body of research has followed, remaining for the most part distinct from mainstream sociological theorizing. One of the most important findings from this vein of research is that punishment processes matter a great deal more for encouraging compliance than do punishments themselves. (2) These conclusions are generally based upon surveys of, or experiments with, people in the general population, where criminal offending is rare. And, in contrast to sociological studies that tend to investigate serious and violent crimes, sociolegal scholars exploring compliance tend to study banal violations such as failure to pay parking tickets, speeding, tax compliance, and so on. (3)

Both research traditions have produced valuable insights regarding law-violating and law-abiding behaviors. However, both approaches also overlook a simple fact of criminality: most criminals--whether serial killers, professional robbers, drug dealers, or embezzlers--comply with the law most of the time. Crimes are episodic, rare events in the everyday lives of just about all offenders. With a few exceptions, the standard sociological approach to the study of crime and deviance focuses solely on the illegal behaviors of offenders, with very little consideration of their law-abiding behaviors. Conversely, compliance research tends to focus on ordinary citizens who have very little desire or ability, or few opportunities, to engage in more serious forms of street crimes. In short, while we have many explanations about why criminals break the law and why ordinary citizens obey the law, we rarely ask: why do criminals obey the law?

We attempt a study of compliance by surveying active offenders through the Chicago Gun Project (CGP). The CGP posed a series of individual, neighborhood, legitimacy, and social network questions to a sample of 141 offenders in fifty-two Chicago neighborhoods. The survey, originally part of a larger research project, was specifically designed to incorporate a sociological understanding of criminal offending with a focus on offenders' perceptions of legitimacy of law and legal actors as a path to reduction of or desistance from violent crime. (4) The CGP examined how offenders' perceptions of the law and social networks influence their understanding of legal authority and subsequent law-violating behavior.

Unlike prior studies of criminal offending, this study examines how perceptions of the law--and its agents--influence compliance. Unlike prior research on compliance, this study surveys the subgroup most likely to be the perpetrators and victims of crime, rather than a random sample of the general population. Thus, the CGP offers two considerable advancements over prior research on both criminal offending and compliance. …

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