Social Capital and Protecting the Rights of the Accused in the American States

Published date01 May 2002
Date01 May 2002
Subject MatterArticles
Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice / May 2002Brody, Lovrich / DARKSIDE OF SOCIAL CAPITAL
Social Capital and Protecting the Rights
of the Accused in the American States
An Investigation of the Dark Side of Social Capital
Washington State University Spokane
Washington State University
High levels of social capital in communities are related to a number of positive conditions.
Although high levels of social capital are generally viewedpositively, they may also have nega-
tive consequences, particularly the mistreatment of people outside the mainstream. As social
capital increases, individuals charged with committing crimes—norm violators—may experi-
ence increased sanctions and decreased constitutional protections from the state. Toexplore this
aspectof social capital, this study examines the relationship between a state’s level of social capi-
tal and the likelihood of its highest court granting criminal defendants rights beyond those man-
dated by the Supreme Court.
The concept of social capital has occasioned a great deal of interest over
the course of the past decade. Social scientists have defined social capi-
tal as referring to the “social connections and the attendant norms and trust”
or “features of social life—networks, norms, and trust—that enable partici-
pants to act together more effectively to pursue shared objectives”(Putnam,
1995, p. 665). Research has indicated that levels of social capital present in
communities are possibly related to economic growth (Knack & Keefer,
1997), the democratization of political life (Aberg, 2000), governmentalper-
formance (Putnam, 1993), public and individual health (Kawachi, Kennedy,
& Glass, 1999), and the abatement of crime (National Crime Prevention
Council, 2001; Putnam, 2000).
Although the presence of high social capital in a community is generally
viewed as a positivetrait, it has also been associated with some negative con-
Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice,Vol. 18 No. 2, May 2002 115-131
© 2002 Sage Publications
sequences as well (Portes & Landolt, 1996). Social capital typically givesrise
to civic participation, trust in social institutions, and a sense of “membership”
in a community featuring shared group and societal norms; however, it also
can entail excessivesocial pressure for conformity (Portes & Landolt, 1996).
It has been noted that as social capital increases, those individuals who fail to
conform to established norms are likely to find themselves isolated and
treated as outsiders (Edwards & Foley, 1997). In addition, as the holders of
the dominant values in a community seek to improvethat community in ways
reflecting their own shared preferences, nonconformists are likely to experi-
ence both direct and subtle social sanctions for their failure to adapt. In the
area of criminal justice phenomena, it has been noted that one of the benefits
of enhanced social capital developing in formerly communist eastern Europe
has been the increased sanctioning authority and higher level of governmen-
tal action being taken against corruption and other criminal activity (Aberg,
The same direct connection between social capital and vigorous order
maintenance quite possibly occurs in the American criminal justice system.
Individuals who violate the provisions of a state’s criminal lawshave essen-
tially violated the norms of conduct required by their society. As such, they
are subject to penal sanctions enforced by the government. In the contextof a
high social capital setting, the constitutional protections afforded individuals
charged with committing crimes may come to be seen as unduly inhibiting
the ability of the community to regulate bad conduct and protect itself from
nonconformist behaviors viewed as unacceptable. Search and seizure prac-
tices by law enforcement, for example, are an important area wherein this
struggle between individual liberties and community order comes into fre-
quent conflict (e.g., drug testing, use of police cameras in public places,
school and workplace inspections, etc.). The research literature suggests that
as social capital increases, so too does the majority’s inclination to promote
its community (Chaskin, Brown, Venkatesh, & Vidal, 2001). In addition, the
presence of active community and civic groups and high levelsof voter par-
ticipation, which are primary indicators of the strength of social capital, will
lead to increased political clout on the part of the predominant group mem-
bers of society.With this political clout, the dominant majority has the ability
to select and reward governmental decision makers who favor the limitation
of the rights of criminal defendants accused of offenses against the commu-
nity and favor strong penalties for those convicted of crimes (Clemens,
To explore this more problematic (from a civil libertarian standpoint)
aspect of social capital, this study examines the relationship between the
116 Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice / May 2002

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