Violence and the Politics of Law and Order

By Lyons, William | Law & Society Review, January 1, 2000 | Go to article overview

Violence and the Politics of Law and Order


Lyons, William, Law & Society Review


Crime Is Not the Problem makes a case for prioritizing violence reduction as a separate and distinct problem from crime more generally. Zimring and Hawkins persuasively argue that we live with distinctively high levels of lethal violence, within a high-- gun-use environment, where the most lethal forms of violence are concentrated in the least-advantaged inner-city communities. Their analysis suggests important questions that may indeed change the subject from crime to violence, as the authors hope.

What kinds of violence are responsible for the greatest harm? How can we reduce the harms associated with violence in ways that will strengthen those communities most victimized by crime and violence? But the analysis of Zimring and Hawkins depends on a peculiar set of assertions about fear that shifts their policy focus away from these broad questions about violence and community. Instead of focusing on policies to reduce the most common forms of violence, Zimring and Hawkins choose a much more narrow and problematic focus on stranger homicides associated with armed robberies. And instead of a focus on violence reduction That will strengthen those communities most victimized by crime, Zimring and Hawkins favor targeting the punitive power of the state on inner-city neighborhoods and African American men.

Making Crime Pay demonstrates that citizen fears have an observable and complex political history that complicates efforts to justify excessively punitive policy on the basis of public opinion without a rigorous and persuasive empirical analysis of the complex political dynamics only hinted at by Zimring and Hawkins. Understanding that history shows that the further weakening of inner-city communities associated with the kinds of extremely punitive approaches to violence advocated by Zimring and Hawkins is a foreseeable consequence of responding to only the most politically salient citizen fears. Further, the political forces responsible for amplifying the fears used to justify excessive punishment are also those seeking to dismantle the social welfare state, to reassert traditional family values in place of investing in the quality of life for actual families, and to consistently block gun control legislation. This more complete analysis of the politics central to debates about reducing violence could not be more important or timely. It demonstrates that a failure to account for the politics of law and order will likely block progressive reform efforts and lead to support for the existing menu of punitive (and ineffective) approaches, as seen even in an otherwise important book like Crime Is Not the Problem. Taken together, then, these two books offer a critically important foundation for constructing more effective alternatives to the excessively punitive approaches to crime control that currently prevail in the United States.

I. Crime is Not the Problem: Lethal Violence in America

According to Zimring and Hawkins, there are three reasons for changing the subject from crime to lethal violence. First, since lethal violence is what distinguishes the U.S. public safety problem from the problems experienced by our closest allies, reducing lethal violence first ought to distinguish our policy priorities. Second, since we know more about the proximate causes of lethal violence than we know about the root causes of crime or violence, a focus on lethal violence is the most prudent and promising way to invest our criminal justice resources. And finally, more punitive action is the democratic response to the citizen fears associated with lethal violence.

Lethal Violence Is a Distinctively U.S. Problem

When compared to other G7 countries, neither the crime nor the non-lethal violence rates in the United States are distinctively high. International comparison of aggregate national-level data, however, demonstrates that U.S. homicide rates are much higher than the rates of our closest allies. …

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