Decoupling the Labeling Tradition

Date01 October 2017
Published date01 October 2017
Subject MatterArticles
Decoupling the Labeling
Tradition: Exploring Gang
Affiliation and the Application
of Law
Jonathan W. Caudill
, Brie Diamond
, Stephanie Karas
and Matt DeLisi
Scholars have tested Becker’s master status thesis on criminal justice system outcomes, yet have
been unable to disentangle the label from behavioral characteristics. To clarify the effects of labels,
we used archival juvenile court data to test Becker’s master status through the effects of gang
affiliation on case disposition. Stratified multivariate regression models revealed consistent effects of
predictors—mental health needs, offenses per case, felony offense, and pretrial detention—on case
referral to juvenile court across the gang-affiliated demarcation. The static effects of legal predictors
across the gang demarcation levy questions about the legal consequences of labels.
juvenile justice, juvenile court, prosecution, case disposition, labeling, master status
Labeling theories rely on the assumption that how one is treated is based on others’ perceptions of
them and their individual characteristics. Th is label becomes the lens through which all fut ure
behavioral expectations are created. Labeling theorists posit that involvement in the criminal justice
system has persistent consequences, especially when the criminal label becomes a “master status”
(Becker, 1963). The master status—that social identity that trumps all other social statuses—is the
linchpin connecting social status and consequences.
Scholars interested in the gang phenomenon have observed the determinants of gang association
(gang membership), the magnitude of membership (frequency and length of membership), and the
consequences—both criminal and legal—of gang membership (recidivism and master status). Stud-
ies on the determinants of gang association have identified several environmental and individual
factors (Decker, Melde, & Pyrooz, 2013; Hoeben, Meldrum, Walker, & Young, 2016; Pyrooz,
School of Public Affairs, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, Colorado Springs, CO, USA
Department of Criminal Justice, Texas Christian University, Fort Worth, TX, USA
Department of Criminal Justice, University of Houston–Downtown, Houston, TX, USA
Iowa State University, Ames, IA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Jonathan W. Caudill, School of Public Affairs, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, Colorado Springs, CO, USA.
Youth Violence and JuvenileJustice
2017, Vol. 15(4) 343-358
ªThe Author(s) 2017
Reprints and permission:
DOI: 10.1177/1541204016689492
Turanovic, Decker, & Wu, 2016; Voisin, King, Diclemente, & Carry, 2014; Watkins & Taylor,
2016), and scholars have suggested gang membership is a fleeting experience for most (Gilman,
Hill, Hawkins, Howell, & Kosterman, 2014; Merrin, Hong, & Espelage, 2015; O’Neal, Decker,
Moule, & Pyrooz, 2016; Pyrooz, 2014). There is also evidence of criminal persistence associated
with gang affiliation, suggesting gang involvement increases the risk of recidivism for those offen-
ders already processed through the criminal and juvenile justice systems (DeLisi, Spruill, Peters,
Caudill, & Trulson, 2013; Dong & Krohn, 2016; Dooley, Seals, & Skarbek, 2014; Drury & DeLisi,
2011). In conjunction with official recidivism measures, scholars have sugg ested that the gang
member label, when applied by the criminal justice system, may override other social statuses
(Brownfield, Sorensen, & Thompson, 2001; Miethe & McCorkle, 1997; Zatz, 1985).
Scholars interested in the legal consequences of gang affiliation have applied Becker’s (1963,
p. 33) master status label, where being perceived as a gang member permeates and downgrades the
influence of other identified correlates of formal processing through the criminal and juvenile justice
system (Brownfield et al., 2001; McCorkle & Miethe, 1998; Pyrooz, Wolfe, & Spohn, 2011; Zatz,
1985). Studies concerning the effects of the gang affiliation status on case processing, however, have
produced mixed findings. Inconsistent effects of the gang affiliation stat us across samples and
statistical modeling have produced findings ranging from no independent effects of gang affiliation
on case processing to gang affiliation serving to divert subjects from the criminal justice system.
The current study furthers the line of scholarship concerning the interplay between gang status
and the application of law. Data originated from a large southern state’s juvenile justice case
management system and included 5,111 (nongang ¼4,399; gang ¼712) subjects, with 31%of
cases being formalized in the juvenile court. Reported here are the results, and related discussion, of
a quasi-experimental research design comparing the influence of environmental (mental health and
abuse history) and behavioral (number of offenses, weapon-involved offense, and offense level)
characteristics on case formalization for nongang and gang status groups, while control ling for
demographic and regional effects. Specifically, our analyses include stratifying the sample by the
gang-affiliated marker and then comparing statistically the correlation between established predic-
tors of formal case processing across these groups. This approach contributes to the understanding of
gang status within the legal context through application of a unique statistical approach on case
dispositional outcomes. The overarching interest is in the relationship between the social status of
being gang affiliated and the application of law through legal formalization.
Literature Review
There has been a tendency in the scholarly work to suggest that the application of law is based on
social status. From a social psychology perspective, Lemert (1951) theorized a process of crimino-
genic enhancement resulting from being labeled criminal, thus, suggesting the application of law
inherently breeds individual criminality. From a sociolegal perspective, Black (1976) theorized the
application of law upon individuals, in addition to macrolevel factors, was based on perceived social
integration. In other words, one’s social integration (e.g., contribution to the workforce) has an
influence on the magnitude of law they experience. Within both of these theoretical frameworks rest
the concept of social labels, where social status affects self-perception and legal response. What is
less clear in the sociolegal arena is what social factors drive the application of law.
Linchpin Consequences
The labeling paradigm is based on the idea that societal reaction to criminal behavior contributes to
future criminal behavior. Lemert (1951) suggested deviance can be organized into primary and
secondary, where primary deviance refers to the initial act of antisocial behavior and secondary
344 Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice 15(4)

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