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Chapter 5 Deviance, Crime, and Social Control

Social Issues in the News

“Attack Leaves Voter, 73, in Pain and Fear,” the headline said. In September 2008, a 73-year-old woman had just voted in the primary election in Boston, Massachusetts. As she walked home, two men rushed up, grabbed her purse, and knocked her down. She later said, “In this situation, you don’t think too much. Only, you get scared when people try to take everything from you.” A neighbor who came to the victim’s aid recalled, “I heard a woman in distress, screaming for help. I just jumped out of bed and looked out the window. And I could see an elderly person on her knees, crying.” The police later arrested a 19-year-old suspect for robbery and assault and battery. The city’s district attorney said of the crime, “It’s despicable. Only a coward would attack a 73-year-old woman from behind. He’s brought shame to himself and his family, and he can count on an extremely aggressive prosecution.” (Ellement, 2008)Ellement, J. R. (2008, September 18). Attack leaves voter, 73, in pain and fear. Boston Globe, p. B1.

Why does a crime like this happen? What can be done to reduce such crime? What strategies for reducing crime does a sociological understanding of criminal behavior imply?

This terrible crime was, of course, just one of millions that occur in the United States each year. In March and April of 2009, crime received major headlines when a series of mass shootings around the nation led to the deaths of more than 60 people (Rucker, 2009).Rucker, P. (2009, April 8). Some link economy with spate of killings. The Washington Post, p. A3. In one of the most deadly episodes, a gunman walked into an immigration services center in Binghamton, New York, and systematically killed 13 people before shooting himself. About this same time, media reports indicated a spurt in property crime in many U.S. cities that observers attributed to the severe economic recession that began in late 2008 (Goodman, 2009).Goodman, P. S. (2009, April 20). As a budget gets tighter, police battle rising crime. The New York Times, p. A13.

A central message of this book so far is that society is possible because people conform to its norms, values, and roles. As the sad story of the 73-year-old Boston voter illustrates, this chapter has a different message: that people often violate their society’s norms and are sometimes punished for doing so. Why do they commit deviance and crime? What influences their chances of being punished? How do behaviors come to be defined as deviant or criminal? Recalling this book’s emphasis on changing society, how can crime and deviance be reduced? These are questions that sociologists have long tried to answer, and we explore possible answers in the pages that follow.