Criminological Highlights Vol. 16, No. 6 – October 2017

View this issue as a PDF: PDF iconCrimHighlightsV16N6.pdf

This issue of Criminological Highlights addresses the following questions:

  1. How can school policies affect crime?
  2. Why do Black Americans have less confidence in the police than White Americans?
  3. What kinds of jobs will reduce offending among those who have been involved in crime?
  4. How do courts punish those who have not been found guilty?
  5. Does what men look like affect the sentences they receive?
  6. What are the challenges facing First Nations police services in Canada?
  7. Do drug courts encourage police to charge minor drug offenders?
  8. Why does the incarceration of parents lead, eventually, to lower earnings for their children?

Being suspended from school increases the likelihood of being arrested.

Though it is obvious that youths who are suspended from school are likely to be more troublesome than those who are never suspended, an important question, from a policy perspective, is whether being suspended increases, decreases, or does not affect the likelihood that a youth will get into more trouble in the future.

This paper uses data from the US National Longitudinal Study of Youth collected in four waves between 1997and 2000.  Each time youths were interviewed, starting when they were 14 years old, they were asked if they had received a school suspension in the previous year.  They were also asked if they had been arrested since the previous interview.  Across the whole period, 14.5% of the youths had been arrested at least once. Within each wave, about 11% of the sample reported receiving a school suspension.  Youths were also asked about their own delinquencies; the number of delinquent acts engaged in over the prior year was used as a control variable.  Other control variables included race, age, gender, and family income.

The analysis examines two ways in which suspensions could affect arrests.  First, it examined the effect of a suspension in one period on a youth’s likelihood of arrest after being suspended.  Second, it looked across youths at the impact on arrests of the number of years in which the youth experienced a suspension from school.

Black youths, males, older youths, those from low income families, and youths who reported higher levels of delinquency were more likely to be arrested.  But holding these factors constant, school suspensions had additional effects on arrest. Youths who were suspended were more likely to report being arrested in years in which they were suspended than in years they were not.  Looking across individuals, and controlling for these theoretically important factors, the more times youths were suspended, the higher the likelihood that they would be arrested by the police.

“These findings suggest that school discipline functions as a negative turning point for some youth. Prior work… has shown that contact with the criminal justice system often begets increased contact with the criminal justice system in the future” (p. 645).  Furthermore, these data show that “even when youths stay in school [after being suspended] but receive formal punishment, they are likely to experience [additional] formal contact with the criminal justice system through arrest” (p. 646).

Conclusion:  Previous work “demonstrates that youths who experience punitive punishments are likely to find themselves in prison due, in large part, to dropping out of school” (p. 648).   In addition, however, while “prior work has shown that punitive school discipline can lead to a whole host of destructive outcomes within school, such as diminished academic performance, grade retention, and decreased extracurricular participation, [the] findings [in this study] show that school discipline may serve as an important negative turning point setting youth up for additional formal sanctions even when they remain in school” (p. 648).  The results imply that although suspension from the perspective of the school may at least temporarily rid the school of a problem, the long term impact on society may well be to increase the negative consequences for the youths who are suspended.

Reference: Mowen, Thomas and John Brent (2016).  School Discipline as a Turning Point: The Cumulative Effect of Suspension on Arrest. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 53(5), 628-653.

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Why do Black Americans have less confidence in the police than White Americans? A study of how police officers in one city speak to Black and White citizens whom they stop for traffic violations suggests that police show less respect toward Black citizens than toward Whites.

In studies carried out in the US and in Canada, Black citizens typically describe their local police in less favourable terms than do Whites.   Various explanations have been offered for this consistent finding.  This study suggests that the explanation lies at least in part with the police whom they interact with: the police use different language when interacting with Black and White citizens.

One of the most common ways in which citizens come in contact with the police is in routine traffic stops. Unlike many studies of police-citizen interactions, this study does not rely on assessments by those who interact with the police. Instead it uses transcribed body-camera recordings from 981 routine traffic stops of White and Black community members carried out by 245 different members of the Oakland, California, police in April 2014. From the 143 hours of footage, 36,738 usable officer utterances were obtained.  The language used in these interactions was the focus of the studies reported here.

In the first study, the text of a random sample of 414 officer utterances was chosen.  Each of 70 participants (39 female, 21 male; average age: 25.3 years) looked at a batch of transcriptions of 60 of these utterances by the police to the citizen along with the text of the community member’s utterance that immediately preceded it.   They then rated the police officer’s utterance on how respectful, polite, friendly, formal, and impartial the officer was.  The participants did not know the race of the community person or the race of the police officer.   There was a very high rate of agreement on the ratings of each of the utterances by the different participants.

The key findings were clear:  “Officer utterances directed toward Black drivers were perceived as less respectful, polite, friendly, formal and impartial than language directed toward white drivers… even when controlling for the age and sex of the driver” (p. 6522).

Next, a “computational linguistic model of respect and formality” was developed, so that each utterance could be rated mechanically on these dimensions.  This model included such factors as apologies from the police officer, expressions of gratitude, reassurance, use of titles and last names and positive words, etc.  The 36,738 utterances were then machine coded.  Various control factors were included (community member’s age, gender; the officer’s race, whether a search was conducted, and what the result was of the stop (warning, citation or arrest)).

The rating of these utterances by the police officers showed higher respect toward Whites than Blacks.  Officer race did not contribute significantly.   The effects held across the traffic offences of varying severity.  Race of the community member was not related to the formality of the language used by police officers.  Finally, additional analyses demonstrated that the results were not due to the behaviour of a small number of police officers.

Conclusion: “A person’s experiences of respect or disrespect in personal interactions with police officers play a central role in their judgements of how procedurally fair the police are as an institution, as well as their willingness to support or cooperate with the police.” (p. 6521).  The results of this study suggest that the police use less respectful language toward Black citizens than they do toward Whites. Whites are considerably more likely to hear one of the most respectful utterances; Blacks are more likely to hear one of the least respectful utterances.   It would seem that a first step toward ‘earning’ the respect of Black citizens would be for the police to talk to Blacks using the same kind of language as they use when talking to Whites.

Reference:  Voight, Rob and 8 others (June 20, 2017).  Language from Police Body Camera Footage Shows Racial Disparities in Officer Respect. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(25), 6521-6526 + supplementary material.

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Providing opportunities for employment for men who have offended reduces self-reported crime, but only when the men report that they had strong commitment to their jobs.

There is a good deal of evidence that work can reduce the likelihood that some people will commit offences. However, the evidence appears to demonstrate that the relationship between employment and crime is not a simple one (see Criminological Highlights 4(3)#6, 6(5)#7, 8(6)#4, 10(2)#3, 12(4)#8, 15(6)#4, 16(5)#1).

This paper examines the relationship between employment, characteristics of that employment, and self-reported offending for 717 men who were imprisoned for felonies in the US state of Nebraska.   Using a technique known as the ‘life event calendar’ whereby personal memories can be recalled and dated, the prisoners were asked about their involvement in a range of different crimes in the 36 months prior to their incarceration.  They were also asked about whether they were working during each of these months and, if they were, they were asked about the number of hours, the pay, and whether they felt committed to the job (on a 5-point scale running from “just a job”  to “a job I was very committed to”).  Finally they were asked about their involvement in other activities (e.g., going to bars, etc.; hanging around with friends) as well as their use of alcohol and other drugs.

The advantage of this “within person” design is that it was possible to see how work affected the involvement in crime within each person over the three year period. Each person is, in effect, his own control.   For each person, the analysis was limited to those months (in the 36 months prior to the incarceration during which they were interviewed) in which he was not incarcerated (and, therefore had an opportunity both to offend and to work).

In general, people who were working in a given month were less likely to report being involved in crime than those not working in each of the 36 months (34% vs. 54%). This finding, of course, could be due to pre-existing differences between those working and those not working.  Looking within individuals, however, the findings were clear: people were less involved in crime when they were working.  However, it turns out that the nature of the work is crucial in understanding its effect on crime.   There was no difference in crime between months that a person was not working and months in which they were working at low quality jobs (low pay, few hours, “just a job”).  Said differently, “low-quality work situations do not significantly reduce criminal involvement relative to periods of unemployment” (p. 323).  The number of hours worked and the income earned also made no difference.

“When men are more highly committed to their jobs, they have significantly lower crime risk” (p. 323).   These effects held whether one looked at the full 36 months (leading up to eventual incarceration) or only the last 6, 12 or 24 months prior to eventual incarceration.  In all cases, it was the subjective assessment of the job that mattered rather than the hours or pay.  Work also appeared to have an effect on the ordinary activities that these men engaged in.   However, “the routine activities [the man was involved in] together explained approximately [only about] one quarter of the relationship between work and crime” (p. 335).

Conclusion:  For people who are likely to be involved in crime, being involved in work that they feel committed to appears to be effective in reducing involvement in crime. Low quality work does not, however, have this protective impact.  One explanation for the crime reducing effect of high quality work may be that it shows individuals how much they stand to lose if criminal activities resulted in a loss of the job.  “The present findings suggest that a philosophy of “just give ‘em a job, any job’ll do” is likely to be doomed from the start…. Some attention should be devoted to the subjective evaluations of participants about the jobs that are made available [to them]” (p. 336).

Reference:  Apel, Robert and Julie Horney (2017).  How and Why Does Work Matter?  Employment Conditions, Routine Activities, and Crime among Adult Male Offenders. Criminology 55(2), 307-343.

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Canadian courts attempt to control the behaviour of people who are awaiting trial by placing conditions on their release on bail that restrict their freedom in a manner not contemplated by current bail laws.

On an average night, about 35% of Canadian prisoners are ‘remand’ prisoners – typically awaiting trial.   Said differently, about a third of Canadian prisoners are legally innocent.  The rate of remand imprisonment has been increasing slowly since the early 1980s and cannot be attributed to any single change in legislation. The increase also cannot be attributed to increases in crime: Crime, including violent crime has been decreasing since the early 1990s.

The 1972 Bail Reform Act suggested that release on bail should be presumed and that the prosecution must demonstrate a need for an accused person to be detained. Since then, successive governments first created and then added to the list of offences or circumstances in which an accused must demonstrate that release on bail is warranted.   The problem that has, until recently, not received much attention is the setting of conditions on those released on bail.

This paper uses data from 152 days of observations of bail proceedings in 11 adult Ontario courts between 2006 and 2013.  Most accused were released with the consent of the Crown.  However, most (76%) of those released required a surety to guarantee their appearance in court and adherence to an average of 7.8 conditions of release.  Most (64%) accused persons released on bail were prohibited from possessing any weapons; 63% were required to live with their sureties; 20% were required to abstain from drugs; 18% were required to abstain from alcohol.  Other conditions included not being within certain areas of the city (27%), house arrest (7%), and curfews (19%).  There were some conditions that appeared to flow from the allegations against the accused (e.g., no contact with witness/victim (50%)).  On the other hand, there were some conditions such as “being amenable to the rules and discipline of the home” (71%) that were both vague and apparently unrelated to the offence.

The problem is simple: accused (and their lawyers) will agree to almost anything to obtain release especially since the bail process is itself remarkably inefficient (Criminological Highlights, 15(2)#1).  But then once the conditions are imposed, violating them puts an accused person in jeopardy of a new criminal charge (failure to comply with a court order).  The law indicates that “conditions are supposed to address the grounds upon which the accused would have otherwise been detained and be rationally connected to addressing these grounds” (p. 677).   Instead, what we see are conditions being placed on accused people that do not relate to the offence (see also, Criminological Highlights, 13(5)#5).  Given that legally innocent accused may be living with these restrictions for many months, it is not surprising that conditions are sometimes violated. In about 10% of criminal cases in Canada, a bail violation is the most serious charge in the case.

Conclusion:  Accused people are clearly being punished by courts that place restrictions on them which often have little or no bearing on the offence that was the basis of the original charge.  These conditions are obviously experienced as punishment.  “The result is a blurring of the lines between the presumed innocent and the proven guilty” (p. 682). At around the time that this paper was published, the Supreme Court of Canada in R. v. Antic (2017 SCC 27) noted that “It is time to ensure that the bail provisions are applied consistently and fairly. The stakes are too high for anything less. Pre-trial custody ‘affects the mental, social, and physical life of the accused and his family’ and may also have a ‘substantial impact on the result of the trial itself’” (para 66).  The Supreme Court then restated, in plain language, Canada’s law.  This paper demonstrates that such a restatement was clearly necessary.

Reference: Myers, Nicole Marie (2017). Eroding the Presumption of Innocence: Pre-trial Detention and the Use of Conditional Release on Bail. British Journal of Criminology57, 664-683.

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People being sentenced whose faces are independently judged to be attractive (or young and innocent-looking) are less likely to be perceived as threatening and less likely to be sentenced to prison.

There is a long history of social science research suggesting that what people look like affects the manner in which they are judged by others.  “People routinely make character judgements based on physical appearance and… these judgements are consequential for individual life outcomes” (p. 520).

This study extends this line of research into decision-making in the criminal justice system by examining the sentencing outcomes for a random sample of 1,119 male felony defendants who were sentenced under the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area.

Standardized colour facial ‘booking photos’ were located for these offenders.   Each of these photos was rated by four people (2 males and 2 females; two Blacks, 1 White, and 1 Hispanic) on perceived dangerousness, violence, blameworthiness, and ability to serve time in prison.  The people doing the rating had no information about any of the people in the photos.  The four scores were averaged across raters.  A score of “threatening appearance” was created by combining the four highly correlated measures.  In addition, the defendant’s race and the presence of tattoos and scars were assessed (from the photo) as was the defendants’ perceived attractiveness and whether the defendant was described as “baby- vs. mature-faced.”

The sentence received was categorized as a non-prison sentence, a suspended prison sentence, and a prison sentence.   Various controls were taken into account: the presumptive sentence under the guidelines, the offender’s age, criminal history, offence type, whether the accused had a private attorney, and whether the accused was convicted at trial.

Above and beyond the control factors, Blacks offenders were seen as more threatening and Asian Americans were seen as less threatening than White offenders. Those who were judged as being attractive, being “baby-faced” and not having scars or tattoos were seen as less threatening.

Those defendants judged to be more attractive or baby-faced were more likely to be sentenced leniently even when other legally relevant factors (e.g., the presumptive sentence, the offence and the criminal history) were taken into account.  Interestingly, however, whether or not the offender was judged to have a ‘threatening appearance’ did not seem to be independently important in determining the sentence.

Conclusion: The results of this study appear to support the conclusion that “the power of facial appearance to prejudice perceivers could lead to alarming bias in the criminal justice system” (p. 536). The findings “reveal that defendant appearance invokes social attributions that connect certain offenders to enhanced impressions of danger, violence, culpability, and suitability to prison” (p. 538).  Obviously the sentencing guideline and the criminal history score were important factors in determining the sentence these offenders received.  But above and beyond these factors certain facial characteristics (e.g., low attractiveness) were associated with a higher likelihood of receiving a sentence of imprisonment.

Reference: Johnson, Brian D. and Ryan D. King (2017). Facial Profiling: Race, Physical Appearance, and Punishment.  Criminology, 55(3), 520-547.

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The problems facing Canada’s First Nations when they establish their own police services are predictable and perhaps inevitable. It would appear that a new approach to self-administered police services in these small communities is needed.

Canada’s First Nations Policing Programs allow Indigenous communities to set up their own police services that are funded by provincial and federal governments.  These communities do, however, have an alternative: contracting with existing (non-Indigenous) police services.

Between 1992 and 2017, 58 self-administered (SA) First Nations police services had been established across Canada, but by January 2017 20 of them had been disbanded.  The question this paper addresses is whether SA police services were set up to fail.

SA First Nations police services tend to be small (average 22.1 officers), as are the communities they serve (e.g., as small as 361 people).   Many of the communities are not accessible by road.  The largest SA First Nations police service has responsibility for 35 geographically separated communities and has 134 officers and 30 civilians.   Funding arrangements are negotiated every 5 years for each community separately.  This paper examined results of a survey of sworn officers from these services, interviews with some senior officers, and publicly available documents.

One reason for the failure of many of these services is that, as new institutions in small communities, they were politically vulnerable in part because of the inevitable lack of experience and management skills of those in charge.  Perhaps because they were new and were serving small communities, there were also internal political tensions. About half of the officers in SA services reported that political interference was a serious problem.   There were also suggestions that political interference may have contributed to another problem: high personnel turnover.  In addition, of course, the social and crime problems in many First Nations communities make the challenge of being the principal ‘first responders’ to all problems even more acute.  The majority of First Nations police officers saw suicide, family violence, child welfare problems, drug or alcohol problems and feuding families/groups as being serious.

Because the funding for these police services is completely external (and negotiated in 5-year contracts), the flexibility that ordinary municipalities have (e.g., to raise taxes for more policing or special police needs) does not exist.  In addition, their small size – and often remote locations – provide additional challenges.   Infrastructure funding (e.g., for holding cells, secure storage,  or communication) is typically not independently budgeted.  If officers are not from the community, housing for them is often not immediately available.  These problems make it difficult to recruit and retain officers, especially since large agencies like the RCMP provide housing for officers in remote locations.   Generally speaking, officers in SA police are more likely to see inadequate resources as a problem than are officers who police First Nations communities on contract with the Ontario Provincial Police or RCMP.  Ironically, there is some evidence that the proportion of Indigenous officers policing First Nations communities has been decreasing in recent years.

Conclusion:  The goal of encouraging Canada’s First Nations to have their own self-administered police services may have been a good one.  However, it appears that “the manner in which the program has been implemented has compromised its potential efficacy…. These police services often suffer from internal challenges such as small size, the small populations served, and political interference in policing…. Many of these problems appear to be relate to “the lack of stable and consistent funding that is appropriate to meet the demands in Indigenous communities” (p. 594). One important question, then, is whether, by setting up small stand-alone police agencies, Canada is ignoring the fact that these types of agencies are disappearing elsewhere in the world.

Reference:  Kiedrowski, John, Nicholas A. Jones, and Rick Ruddell (2017).  ‘Set up to Fail?’  An Analysis of Self-administered Indigenous Police Services in Canada. Police Practice and Research, 18(6), 584-598.

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The presence of a drug court in a community can encourage police to bring minor drug cases to court that otherwise they would have ignored.

The idea behind drug courts is that drug-dependent accused people, rather than being sent to prison, should be provided with treatment as an alternative to incarceration.  This study examines whether drug courts might have another effect – unintentionally encouraging drug arrests of those accused of minor drug offences.

There are three reasons to be concerned that the presence of a drug court in a community might lead to increased arrests: (1) that drug courts are seen as an effective tool to control (drug related) crime in a community; (2) The belief that law is an effective therapeutic tool to link drug-related offenders, who are viewed as being sick or injured, with appropriate services; (3)The belief that through a community restorative drug court process family, friends, etc., can be mobilized to find effective solutions to problems the accused person is believed to be facing.   One problem is that studies of participants in drug court suggest that many (perhaps a third) score below the minimum threshold for drug dependency.  One study found that only 6% of drug court participants were above the moderate range of addiction severity. Drug courts, in other words, appear to have a large number of “clients” who don’t have drug addiction problems.

This study examines drug arrests during a period when many cities were just beginning to create drug courts (1990-2002).   The main focus was on arrests for drug use in each of 8,137 US jurisdictions during this time.    The hypothesis tested was a simple one: drug use arrests (per 10,000 residents) might be expected to increase in the years after a city created a local drug court.   Various characteristics of each jurisdiction were controlled for including support for and size of police services, arrests for disorder offences, as well as the racial makeup of the community, proportion of the population age 15-24, average  income, and employment rate.

The analysis was one that “allowed pre-post comparisons among drug court jurisdictions while including non-participating jurisdictions as a control for overall nationwide trends in drug arrests.  As such, the relative change in arrest rates was compared both within drug court jurisdictions (before and after) and between these jurisdictions [that had drug courts] and those that were never served by a drug court” (p. 689-690).  Obviously, however, since drug courts are not implemented on a random basis, causal inferences should be made with caution.

Looking across all cities, arrests for serious crime and disorder decreased, but the rate of arrests for drug offences increased.   More importantly, there was a significant increase in drug arrests, during this period (1990-2002), after a jurisdiction implemented a drug court.  Various analyses were carried out (e.g., looking at relatively large and small cities separately, looking only at counties (and excluding cities and townships).  The results were the same: the implementation of a drug court in a jurisdiction was associated with an increase in the likelihood that police would charge minor drug offenders.

Conclusion: “Drug courts were developed to aid the expansion of alternatives to incarceration for individuals with drug or alcohol dependencies who were charged with non-violent [offences]…. However, arrests for misdemeanor drug offences increased substantially during the 12 years following creation of this experimental program in 1989. Regression analyses in this study provide clear evidence that cities and counties that created drug courts experienced increases, rather than declines in arrest for misdemeanor drug use and possession” (p. 690).  It seems likely, therefore, that the availability of drug courts encourages police to bring minor drug users to court.

Reference: Lilley, David R. (2017). Did Drug Courts Lead to Increased Arrest and Punishment of Minor Drug Offenses?  Justice Quarterly, 34(4) 674-698.

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Parental incarceration contributes to intergenerational socioeconomic inequality.

The high rates of imprisonment in the United States beginning in the mid-1970s meant that an increasing number of children experienced the imprisonment of one or both parents.  In some American schools, as many as a quarter of the fathers and a tenth of the mothers of the children in the school experienced imprisonment.  The negative impacts that the incarceration of a parent has on their children is beginning to be understood  (see The Effects of Imprisonment: Specific Deterrence and Collateral Effects — Research Summaries Compiled from Criminological Highlights).

Because mass incarceration started some time ago, it is now possible to examine the long-term impact on the offspring of parents who were incarcerated when the children were young.   This study examines the intergenerational effects of parental imprisonment on the earnings, feelings of powerlessness, and perceived socioeconomic status of those who experienced the incarceration of a parent.  The survey used in this study began in 1994 with a focus on children born in the 1980s.  The main outcome data were obtained in 2007-8 when the survey participants were in their late 20s and early 30s. Overall, about 16% had experienced, when they were children, the incarceration of their father; 4% had experienced the incarceration of their mother.

These young adults were asked their annual earnings, their feelings of powerlessness (by indicating their level of agreement with statements such as “There is really no way I can solve the problems I have”) and perceived socioeconomic status in which respondents indicated where they felt they stood on a 10-point scale of “where people stand in America” on money, education, and respected jobs.

Various school characteristics (e.g., parental imprisonment rates; attendance rates; racial characteristics of the school) as well as individual characteristics of the respondent (perceived closeness to each parent, parental education, race, gender, household income, family structure) were controlled for.

Above and beyond these control factors, the imprisonment of the father or the mother each decreased the likelihood that a youth would receive a post-secondary degree.  When looking at personal earnings (when the respondents were in their late 20s-early 30s), paternal but not maternal incarceration had the effect of reducing the respondent’s personal earnings.  The imprisonment of the father or the mother each had a negative impact on the young adult’s perceived socioeconomic status.  Having experienced the imprisonment of either parent led to young adults reporting reduced socioeconomic accomplishments.   Finally, experiencing the imprisonment of one’s mother (but not father) increased a young adult’s feelings of powerlessness. Clearly the imprisonment of a parent has long term effects.

Conclusion: “These findings are evidence of a trajectory of parental incarceration effects well into adulthood – net of a wide range of other factors – on the future socioeconomic prospects and social exclusion of the children of the American prison generation….  The educational attainment of the children of incarcerated parents is largely the mediating variable [for these effects]” (p. 441-2).  “Parental incarceration thus compromises the educational outcomes of children and their prospects for achieving the socioeconomic success that is central to the American Dream” (p. 423).

Reference: Foster, Holly and John Hagan (2016).  Maternal and Paternal Imprisonment and Children’s Social Exclusion in Young Adulthood.  Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, 105(2), 387-429.

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