Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Investigating the drug-crime link

A correlation between drug use and crime can hardly be denied. The Department of Health and Human Services (DHSS), National Criminal Justice Reference Service (NCJRS) and Home Office in the UK all report high rates of positive drug tests among arestees. For example, DHSS reported in 1997 that arestees tested positive for drugs at rates ranging from 42.5% in Anchorage, Alaska to 78.7% in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Yet correlation is not proof of a relationship between these variables, and certainly not enough to wage a “war on drugs”. So there are three basic arguments policy-makers have used to establish a causal relationship between drugs and crime:

- that drugs have a pharmacological influence on its user, causing aggressiveness and violent crime
- that drugs cause a dependency and need for financial funding satisfied through the commission of crime
- that the illicit drug trade itself generates violent crime.

Pharmacological influence

Evidence of crime based on the effects of illegal substances is surprisingly shaky. The DHHS, Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) and NCJRS gather this evidence in part through inmate self-reporting, where subjects are asked if they were under the influence of drugs at the time of their offense. In one 2004 study, 39% of state inmates guilty of a property offense reported committing their offense under the influence of drugs. In addition, 24% of violent offenders in federal prison reported the same. BJS and NCJRS noted that many victims of violent offenses report that their offender appeared to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The 2005 NCVS found that 27% of victims believed their attacker was on drugs or intoxicated.

Interestingly, all of this evidence is correlative and says nothing about the reason for the crimes in question. To conclude that drugs were responsible would requre that we assume the offender was not motivated to commit the crime prior to the drug use. More importantly, it requires that we assume the drugs are capable of generating violent impulses, which is begging the question. The fact that alcohol is often included in surveys to obtain larger numbers also does not speak well for this causal explanation. Stevens, Trace, & Bewley-Taylor note that although cocaine is often linked to aggression and heroin to property crime, more crime involves alcohol. In a Canadian survey, 40-50% of crime was attributed by inmates to either alcohol or illicit drugs: 10-15% to illicit drugs only, 15-20% to alcohol only, and 10-20% to both alcohol and illicit drugs. They also mention that in one study of 22 cities in the US, no link was found between levels of heroin or crack use among arrestees and crime rates.

On “supporting the habit”

DHHS, BJSS, NCJRS as well as the EMCDDA used inmate feedback to determine whether they had committed their offense to buy drugs, supporting the “economic-compulsive” theory. For example, NCJRS cited one study in which 27% of state and federal inmates incarcerated for robbery and 30-32% of those for burglarly reported they committed their offense to support their drug habit. The Home Office survey was less specific, asking inmates if they perceived a connection between their offense and their drug use. However the results of these surveys is suspect, and not simply because criminals may be lying to provide more sympathetic excuses for their crimes.

Benson, for example, argues that illicit drug use in young adults is associated with higher wages. In a 1986 survey, almost 50% of regular users reported having a full-time job in the previous year. Also, according to a BJS 1989 survey, 65.6% of daily users had wages and salaries as a source of income. Benson also criticizes the implication that drug use means drug dependency. In one survey of cocaine users over 25, only 1 in 11 “lifetime” users reported use in the last month. He noted that heroin users abstain for substantial periods of time, and that pharmacologists describe heroin withdrawal as a “bad case of one week flu”. It may be the case that property offenders are often addicted to drugs, but the drugs themselves do not appear to lead automatically to addiction, let alone to crime supporting such addiction.

Illicit drug trade

The most curious causal link used by government regards the black market drug trade, since it would seem to indict the “war on drugs” itself. In a 1988 study of New York City homicides, 74% were associated with the illicit drug trade. DHHS suggested that violence may be generated through several factors: competition for drug market, disputes and rip-offs in illegal market, and tendency toward violence of those who participate in drug trafficking generate violent crime. The NCJRS report, in fact, explores the possibility that violence in the drug market is caused by its illicit nature. The authors suggest that system violence is caused by a combination of factors, including the value of the drug being traded, the greater risk of enforcement by police, and the increased violence and aggressiveness of users. Because illicit markets are not protected by property rights, no contracts are enforceable except through threat of violence. The crack market, they argue, could be associated with violence because of the special risk of dealing in the drug given its high value and risk of punishment.

Problem with temporal ordering

In order for drug use to be a cause of crime, it must be shown to occur before the crimes it causes. Yet this is more often not the case. Urbis Keys Young find that criminal behavior most often precedes drug use. According to a DUCO study 54% of inmates reported offenses occurred before drugs, vs. 17% reporting that drugs started first and 29% that they started at the same time. Benson also contests the claim that drug use precedes other offenses. According to a BJS survey of prison inmates found that about half of those who used a major drug and three-fifths of those who used a major drug regularly, did so after a nondrug crime. More than half of jail inmates who reported being a regular user said their first crime was an average of two years before drug use.


I won’t argue here that drugs and crime are unrelated. Drugs may not cause crime, but that does not discount other possible relationships. Clearly drug use and crime are highly compatible activities, or they would not occur together so frequently. Yet current research seems to focus either on proving the government’s case, or disproving it. I am not familiar with the kind of research I would need to draw serious alternative conclusions. So for the time being, I will pose a few thoughts and questions for follow-up:

- In what ways might the high of drug use be similar to the high of crime? It is reasonable to expect that an offender will seek activities that satisfy a common psychological craving. Also, could the escape of drug use be a method to avoid dealing with the consequences of criminal behavior?

- The illicit nature of the drug trade means that some criminals (“pushers”) may be drawn not by drug use but by the thrill of the criminal market itself and illegal income.

- What is the role of gang activity on drug use?

Although criminalization has strengthened the correlation between drugs and crime, even after legalization there could be persistent associations – as is the case with alcohol and crime. Ultimately the issue comes down to understanding the criminal lifestyle, seeking integrated explanations for their behaviors.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Website of interest: Dr. Stanton Samenow's homepage

I introduced quotations from Dr. Samenow,a forensic psychologist, in earlier posts. I would be remiss if I did not mention that he maintains a website listing his work and, much to my excitement when I discovered it, a blog-style "Concept of the Month". This month he discusses the challenges of reforming from crime.

I have currently only read one of his books, Inside the Criminal Mind. However I expect that his others are filled with further experiences supporting and elaborating on those ideas. Don't let the barebones design of his site fool you. If you have enjoyed the beginnings of my blog, please take a look; you won't regret it.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

“Crimes of passion” and two approaches to motive

Sources: Inside the Criminal Mind, A General Theory of Crime, FBI’s Crime Classification Manual, Daily Mail

The “crime of passion”

Reading an article the other day, I remembered the alleged category of “crimes of passion”. These crimes are spontaneous, unpredictable, and occur in response to a sudden emotional trauma. For example a husband, hearing of his wife’s infidelity, murders her or her lover in a fit of blind rage. In fact, this account of events follows naturally from conservative criminology, which claims that criminality results from lack of control. The husband may have been a law abiding individual, may have been the perfect family man and neighbor, but this behavior was the result of decades of conditioning by laws and society. The emotional shock simply loosened those controls, leaving him unable to hold back his anger.

On first inspection of the crime, details would support that view. The FBI calls this a “spontaneous domestic homicide”, spontaneous because it is unstaged. The crime usually takes place at the offender’s residence with a weapon of opportunity. And often there will be signs of “undoing”, indicating remorse following the kill. This means the offender may do things such as wash, redress or cover the body, or reposition it on a sofa or bed to give the appearance of sleep. They do this for their own benefit in the attempt to erase the crime from their mind, not for the purpose of concealing it from authorities. If you stop here, you may conclude that suddenly the offender was overwhelmed with rage and lost his mind. After the episode he regained his senses and was hit by the realization of what he had done.

However, the profile of these cases includes a history of abuse or conflict between the offender and victim, dispelling the illusion that the violence was new or foreign to the character of the offender. Criminal psychologist Stanton Samenow observed this pattern, rejecting the view that such crimes are truly unplanned. Previous acts of violence or threats may be hushed up by the family, making the homicide appear sudden and out of character. He discusses one case he was referred by the court: the offender had no prior criminal record and appeared to have just gone “berserk”. The offender himself claimed that he had just snapped and did not know what he was doing. However over the course of interviews it was clear that the marriage had been plagued with fights, that in fact he had struck his wife on several occasions and once even attempted to drown her in the bathtub. Because no one knew of this violence, they could not explain the murder. Samenow concluded that,

…the act was not the product of a deranged mind, nor was it perpetuated by a man to whom violence was an alien impulse. The idea of ridding himself of his wife had occurred to him again and again. In that sense, he was programmed to murder his wife—programmed not by someone else, but by his own habitual patterns of responding to conflict.

People seem to want to conclude that such violence is sudden even when it clearly is not. In the article mentioned earlier, a man killed his wife and four others after complaining that she did not cook his eggs the way he wanted them. The title of the article: “Husband enraged over how his wife cooked his breakfast eggs kills her and four others in Kentucky shotgun rampage”.

After shouting at his wife, she fled to a neighbor’s trailer. He chased her with his shotgun, firing dozens of shots and killing 5 people, before finally killing himself. Despite the title of the article, the offender’s behavior was not a sudden, new anger over something as ridiculous as breakfast, but was the climax of months of brewing hatred. He was about to be evicted because of increased hostility toward neighbors, and one neighbor reported a history of violence.


There are two approaches one could take in analyzing such cases. One would be to identify the offender’s problem as “impulse control”, which is often done by conservative criminologists. However, to do so smuggles in this word “impulse”, which needs to be explained. Would you say that the primary problem in the last case was that the offender “failed to control his impulse to kill wife and neighbors”? Is “control” really the proper focus of the analysis, or are you wondering instead why he had this desire to kill that needed controlling? This is one clear example of the conservative “nothing to see here” attitude toward criminal motivation. An “impulse” is taken for granted as something natural to everyone, with the only difference that criminals have difficulty controlling them.

For example, according to Gottfredson and Hirschi in A General Theory of Crime, the nature of criminality is “lack of self-control”. Interestingly, this defect manifests both in criminal behavior and in behaviors such as over-indulgences of food, alcohol or sex, and drug use. They suggest that by improving self-control in even a non-criminal behavior, this should improve self-control in criminal behaviors, since the source is the same. There is no qualitative distinction made – with reference to motivation – between overeating and murder.

The alternative presented by Samenow is to examine how the offender has habitually responded to conflict. Those who commit “crimes of passion” have a history of responding to conflict with anger and threats. The nature of the conflict itself is of trivial importance; it could be over an affair, or over how eggs were prepared at breakfast. It is natural to feel frustrated by conflict with others, however rather than examine the reason for the conflict and either resolve it or come to terms with it, the offender takes his own frustration as a primary for the other party to acknowledge and bend to. If they do not adapt their behavior to his liking, he responds with further threats, escalating into murderous fantasies.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Classical School and conservative criminology

The roots of the American criminal justice system are mixed in nature, divided between what is known as the Classical School of criminology - consisting of the works of Cesaria Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham - and the works of the Enlightenment thinkers. Despite their differences, together they helped to civilize the Western world by fighting against the use of torture and for the rule of law. It was from these reforms that the modern penal system was born.

However, it was a conflict in philosophies and views of man’s nature that would eventually lead to “conservative” criminology. While the Enlightenment was driven by praise for man’s use of reason and his free will, the Classical School held a more mechanistic view, particularly in the utilitarianism of Bentham.

The deterrence theory of the Classical School

In the Classical School, there is no fundamental difference between the natures of criminal or law abiding behavior. Criminals, like others, are “rational” beings who pursue pleasure and avoid pain. Humans are universally vulnerable to these pleasures and pains. Bentham outlined 14 types of “simple pleasures” and 12 types of “simple pains”. The pleasures included example such as, “pleasures of the senses”, “pleasures of benevolence”, and even “pleasures of power” and “pleasures of malevolence”. Some pleasures have complementary pains, such as “pains of the senses” and, curiously, “pains of benevolence”.

If the pleasures of an action outweigh the pains, the result is the action. Criminals are those who judge the pleasures of crime to be greater than their pains. The problem for society, then, is how to weigh the system in favor of law abiding behavior. This is done primarily through punishment, deterring criminal behavior by stacking the painful consequences against it. Both the severity of punishment and certainty of punishment are variables adding to the calculation. Beccaria believed that punishment was most effective soon after commission of the crime; this creates a close mental association between the crime and the punishment, deterring future offenses. The certainty of punishment and the timing of punishment, then, are more important to the theory than severity.

“Rational” as used in the Classical School, merely refers to this calculation of pleasures and pains. It is in this respect deterministic. A person can make a mistake in the calculation, or can be ignorant of the possible consequences of their behavior, but knowledge of pleasures or pains has a direct effect on decision making. The appeal by Beccaria to associate unwanted behavior with pains actually calls to mind animal training, as opposed to human cognition.

Determinism in conservative criminology

The notion that crime can be reduced and prevented by manipulating pleasure and pain inputs is at the foundation of conservative criminology. There is a variety of theories and policies, but they each attack the same problem on different fronts. For example, laws have been adjusted either with respect to the severity of punishment (think 3 strike laws and mandatory minimum sentencing) or to the certainty of punishment (as in “zero tolerance” enforcement).

There are also theories on the effect social influences have on behavior. Social control theories suppose that strong bonds to family or community encourage law abiding behavior, because deviance will lead the offender to be ostracized from loved ones. This pain becomes a deterrent complementing the deterrent of institutional punishment. As Travis Hirschi, author of the most popular social control theory put it,

To violate a norm is…to act contrary to the wishes and expectations of other people. If a person does not care about the wishes and expectations of other people—that is, if he is insensitive to the opinion of others—then he is to that extent not bound by the norms. He is free to deviate.

To reduce crime, then, parents and authority figures form bonds with children. Notice the intent of this strategy: children do not behave themselves because they have formed a rational conviction, but because they do not want to upset others. They have become “socialized”.

The focus on control of criminality echoes an earlier point from the Classical School, that criminals are not different from the rest of us. Criminality results from the failure to suppress it, sounding very much like Hobbes. From Hirschi:

The question, “Why do they do it?” is simply not the question the theory is designed to answer. The question is, “Why don’t we do it?” There is much evidence that we would if we dared.


Conservatives are known for their advocacy of “retributive justice”. Because individuals have free will, and because they should know better, criminals deserve to be punished for their actions. And punishment should be fair, meaning it should be proportionate to the evil of the crime committed. However in practice, sentencing bears little relationship to this principle. According to the United States Sentencing Commission in FY 2008, the national average length of imprisonment for drug trafficking was 83.2 months. For manslaughter, it was 48.5 months. The discrepancy is due to the alleged deterrent value of the sentence, and the elimination of drugs is a high priority in the justice system. The utter failure of the “war on drugs” serves as good evidence of the error of this approach.

Of course the main problem with this school of thinking is that humans are not robots. There is no universal list of what constitutes pleasure or pain for each man, and they do not always seek the first and avoid the second. Criminals, and in fact many law abiding people, can often be downright self-destructive.

Theories of socialization face similar difficulties, despite their popular appeal. In Inside the Criminal Mind, Stanton Samenow notes that parents of delinquent children are often caring and have tried exhaustively to create an environment of discipline and encouragement. Yet their child’s misbehavior is perceived as reflective of poor parenting skills:

The counselor sees that the youngster is behaving outrageously and seems to be getting away with it. But the counselor may not realize that for years the child has thwarted nearly all parental attempts at disciplining him.

Which brings me to my last point. Conservative theories have a “nothing to see here” approach when it comes to criminal behavior, and this inhibits development. There is little to no interest in what the criminal thinks, because such interest would first require ditching the assumption that everyone thinks the same way. Perhaps also because these theories are widely (and falsely) recognized to be based on the premise of free will, the authors believe it themselves. As a result, by focusing exclusively on the punishment and socialization of offenders, they cripple their ability to understand why neither strategy works as planned.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Hostage situations and the Discovery building attack

Sources: FoxNews, The Huffington Post, and the FBI’s Crime Classification Manual

On Wednesday, a man entered the Discovery building in Silver Spring, MD threatening employees with a gun and explosives. Although most people were evacuated, he managed to keep three hostages for the stand-off with police, demanding changes to Discovery Channel and TLC television programming.

Hostage situations never end well for the hostage takers. Their actions assure them either prison time or death. In this case the gunman, identified as James Jay Lee, was shot and killed while pointing his gun at one of the hostages. So what could such criminals possibly be thinking? Do they really think their demands will be met under those conditions, or that they have a chance of remaining free men?


Lee had a history of confrontation with the Discovery Channel. In 2008 he was arrested for disorderly conduct, when he paid homeless to help protest with him in front of the building, throwing money in the air. He complained that the channel was not serious about airing programming to help save the planet, and that it was merely using the environmental movement for commercial purposes. His suggestions, and later demands, consisted largely of programming to portray humans as a "parasitic" and "filthy" "breeding culture", pushing for population reduction through sterilization and immigration control. According to Lee,

Programs must be developed to find solutions to stopping ALL immigration pollution and the anchor baby filth that follows that.

In addition, they must

Stop all shows glorifying human birthing on [their] channels and on TLC.

In his demands list, Lee referred to humans, babies and human activity as "filth" or "filthy" 7 times. This provides some insight into his obsessive mindset. Lee had been estranged from his family since 2008, and posted on his blog that "I can't seem to stop myself from this venture" and refused to read "anything that is not directly related to the overpopulation problem and global warming." On the blog he labeled himself "World Guardian".

When interviewed, Lee's brother-in-law said he had been prone to "emotional outbursts", "erratic behavior" and had "a lack of respect for any kind of authority". He also said that since the deaths of several family members, Lee had become more unstable.


Given that his activism and public disruption had not succeeded in persuading Discovery to alter its programming, why would Lee choose to resort to violence? Two possibilities come to mind. Either he sincerely believed that open threats would have a chance of convincing executives to champion his cause (in other words, he was insane), or he simply did not care whether they did or not.

In fact, hostage situations are not primarily about the demands of the hostage taker. This is not to suggest that his demands are irrelevant to motivation. However, they are secondary in the same way that a child's denied requests are secondary to the reason for a temper tantrum. The offender is expressing his frustration that prior attempts to get his way failed. The demands are a lost cause, but what remains is the anger at the unwillingness of others to behave by his rules.

Take hostage situations the FBI calls “homicides-to-be” and "pseudohostage situations". In a homicide-to-be, the offender makes clear threats against victims with whom he has a personal grudge, but issues no demands to third parties. In a pseudo-hostage situation, a person is held, but there are no direct threats made to the hostage and no real demands are given. For example, a husband pulls a gun on his wife during an argument. She leaves to get the police, and they learn that the son is still in the house. The husband tells police he is angry at his wife and to leave them alone. In both cases, there is an individual being held, but not for the purposes of collateral.

The existence of demands does not necessarily complicate the motivation. Lee had a demonstrable contempt for “stupid people’s brains”, as well as for their right to make decisions for themselves (whether concerning procreation or TV programming). What decisions he wanted them to make was less important to his anger than the fact that they disagreed with him. Thanks to police it is difficult to say whether he would have carried out his threats, however there have been recent cases in the DC area of individuals attacking strangers without even the pretense of demands. See the shooting at the Holocaust Museum, or the Pentagon. The offender who takes hostages is not more “reasonable”, but he may be less certain of his actions, may simply want the recognition, or may need the rationalization of giving his opponents a chance to save themselves before taking his revenge.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Robbery targets

Source: Where Offenders Choose to Attack: A Discrete Choice Model of Robberies in Chicago, Wim Bernasco, Richard Block, American Society of Criminology, Criminology Volume 47, Number 1 2009

In "Where Offenders Choose to Attack", Bernasco and Block studied robberies committed in Chicago over a three year period in order to understand how robbery targets are selected. They confirmed the importance of several variables:

1) Distance from the robber’s residence: The odds of a site being chosen for robbery decreases exponentially with distance from the offender's home.

2) Race of the offender vs. the neighborhood he hunts in: Offenders are more likely to rob in communities of the same race.

3) The presence of certain “attractive” targets increases chance of robbery. Those targets measured in the article are drug dealers and their customers, prostitutes and their customers, high school students, and retail establishments.

Also of note: Although a large percent of robberies are committed by two or more offenders (48% according to this article), the selection criteria appear the same as those of single offenders.


I will focus here on two points drawn from the article.

First, offenders tend to hunt in areas where they will blend in.

One armed robber was quoted as saying,

[I] can go in a black neighborhood, [an] all-black neighborhood, and I don’t stand out, as opposed to me going out there to a [shopping center in the country] where I might stand out.

Marxist criminology argues that crime is a symptom of the “injustice” of capitalist society, a result of the power struggle of economic classes. Others have suggested that the disproportionate number of arrests in poor, black communities is nothing but unjust police prejudice and harrassment. Residents who become delinquent, then, are merely lashing out at an oppressive system. However the target of these crimes is the neighborhood of the offender himself; to be more specific, the robber targets his neighbor, who is suffering from the same social and economic obstacles. Furthermore, the victims usually share the same race as their attacker. This seriously discredits motives of racial vigilantism or class conflict.

One might argue that if the offender was motivated by anger at the injustice done to him, he might still irrationally lash out at innocents around him, since the real targets are not within reach. However there is no evidence the typical robber is motivated by a concern for civil rights, and the pattern of evidence suggests his choice of targets is intentional, not accidental. White robbers follow a similar pattern as black robbers, committing crimes in white or mixed neighborhoods, but not for example in all-Hispanic or all-black neighborhoods. That white, Hispanic and black robbers make similar choices suggests in itself that criminal thinking crosses issues of race.

Secondly, preferred targets are not those which maximize rewards, but those which minimize effort and risk.

While some criminals do pursue high profile targets, such as banks, most robberies are far less ambitious and involve smaller sums of money. The article describes a good robbery target as “concealable, removable, available, valuable, enjoyable, and disposable”. Cash is the most valued target, and as the authors observe "[r]obbery is more common in deprived areas, which are often cash economies". Ironically, this makes them more attractive targets than wealthier neighborhoods. An abundance of check-cashing outlets, ATMs, pawn shops and bars makes an area vulnerable to robbery. Criminal enterprises, such as the drug trade and prostitution, are also particularly susceptible to robbery since the victims are unlikely to report the crime.

This second point is interesting given the conventional wisdom on poverty and crime. We often hear that poverty leads to crime, because individuals become desperate and pursue illegitimate means for their livelihood. This is a puzzling explanation, since the standard of living in the United States – even in the slums – is so much higher than in most of the world. Few Americans are at risk of actually dying from poverty, nowhere near the number that would explain observed crime rates. (A much larger threat, in fact, is heart disease and diabetes from obesity.) Yet crime is indeed more common in poorer communities. The article may shed some light on this, as it suggests ghetto conditions offer the criminal distinct protections and opportunities: racially homogenous communities to hide in, a variety of quickly accessible cash targets and easy pickins such as the local “vice criminals”.