Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Amateur Sociologist Richard Cohen Has A Theory About Class and Crime

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen has published a provocative essay that attempts to analyze the relationship between class and crime. Cohen asks whether liberals got "it wrong" on class and crime. He concludes that they did.

Cohen argues that acts of violent crime are dropping across the nation -- even though the country is experiencing a "Great Recession." Accordingly, Cohen concludes that liberals are wrong to link class and crime: "[T]he latest crime statistics strongly suggest that bad times do not necessarily make bad people. Bad character does." Cohen's essay suffers on many levels.

First, Cohen simplistically portrays liberal social theory regarding crime. Sociologists have definitely linked the absence of meaningful economic opportunity with crime, but they have never advanced this as the sole cause of criminal behavior.

Furthermore, theories that do link crime and class address the relationship in a far more complicated fashion than Cohen even attempts to do. Cohen believes that if crime and class are indeed related, then a short-term economic downturn should necessarily give rise to a spike in crimes. The academic research on criminal behavior, however, does not centralize this simplistic aspect of the crime/class relationship.

Although sudden economic deprivation could certainly motivate some criminals, sociologists have focused on the longterm effects of poverty. After decades of empirical research, some of the brightest minds have concluded that entrenched and concentrated poverty can present such a formidable barrier to legitimate economic opportunity, that individuals turn to crime. The removal of jobs can also lead to behaviors that seem rational under the circumstances, but which harm the law-breaking individuals and their communities even more. William Julius Wilson's informative book When Work Disappears could have informed Cohen's analysis.

Finally, Cohen's use of statistical information is sloppy. Cohen cites to a recent preliminary FBI report which finds that in 2009, violent crimes decreased over 2008 levels. Cohen, however, fails to place those statistics within an historical context. The 2009 FBI report, for example, makes the following observation about robberies:
Although robbery overall showed a decrease, cities with populations less than 25,000 showed increases in robbery. Robberies also increased in both metropolitan and nonmetropolitan counties, 0.7 percent and 0.6 percent, respectively.
Also, as the FBI's own disclaimer states, the data are compiled as a result of voluntary reporting by local law enforcement. The FBI warns readers not to use the data to make strong conclusions -- particularly of a comparative nature by jurisdiction:
Figures used in this Report are submitted voluntarily by law enforcement agencies throughout the country. . . . Valid assessments are possible only with careful study and analysis of the range of unique conditions affecting each local law enforcement jurisdiction.
It is very important to test and rethink established theories. The relationship between crime and class, however, deserves more than Cohen's pseudo-sociology.


Josh Dowlut said...

Freakonomics more or less came to this same conclusion in trying to explain the sharp drop in crime in the 1990's. I'm sure you're aware of the reason they did credit for the sharp drop.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

I'm not familiar with Freakonomics. But I heard a lot of people pontificating that the improving economy caused a reduction in crime. Sociologists had a much more measured approach. Cohen is even more far fetched due to the short window.

Also, I wonder what theorists would have to say about rapidly expanding opportunities and crime versus rapidly shrinking opportunities and crime. The two events might produce different results.

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