Social organisation and drug law enforcement.

Author:Meares, Tracey L.

    1. A Theory of Community Social Organization

    2. Tough Sentences and Social Organization Improvement?

    3. Tough Sentences and Social Organization Disruption?

    4. Stigma, Linked Fate, and Multiple Roles: The Current

    Drug-Law Enforcement Regime and Social Disorganization


    1. Reverse Stings

    2. Loitering Ordinances



    Over half of a century ago, two Chicago School researchers, Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay, argued in a seminal work that the structure of communities matters more to explaining the occurrence of delinquency than do individual characteristics of offenders. According to Shaw and McKay's social organization theory, individual factors often correlated with crime--such as low economic status or unemployment--do not themselves significantly impact crime. Rather, community-level structures, such as friendship networks, participation in formal organizations like PTAs and churches, and supervision of neighborhood teen peer groups, mediate the impact of these factors on crime. Put another way, the structure of the community in which an individual lives interacts in important ways to either facilitate or retard that individual's criminal or delinquent behavior. In recognizing the critical role of a community comprised primarily of law abiders in controlling crime and delinquency, Shaw and McKay concluded that "[i]ndividualized methods of treatment probably will not be successful in a sufficiently large number of cases to result in any substantial diminution of the volume of delinquency and crime."(1) In other words, Shaw and McKay doubted the efficacy of deterrence models driven by formal sanctions because they believed that such models inadequately accounted for the role of community social control.

    Shaw and McKay's theory should have revolutionized criminal law policy. Yet fifty years later, criminal law policy, dominated by a deterrence model that features increasing the prevalence and length of prison sentences for offending, stubbornly adheres to an individualistic focus on lawbreakers instead of law abiders. Perhaps the best contemporary example of deterrence-worship in public policy is the current approach to drug-law enforcement. As part of the "War on Drugs," federal and state governments have created drug-law enforcement policy that emphasizes prevalent and long prison sentences on the premise that such sanctions incapacitate and deter drug offenders and, therefore, significantly reduce crime. In 1990, then-President George Bush claimed that the federal government's punitive initiatives had produced positive results.(2) To back up this claim, President Bush cited a 44% decrease in monthly drug use between 1985 and 1990. Whether the federal government's War on Drugs was in fact responsible for this decline is greatly disputed.(3)

    One undisputed consequence of the War on Drugs is the fact that disproportionate numbers of African Americans (poor African Americans in particular) have been convicted and imprisoned for drug offending. President Bush's Attorney General, William Barr, touted this piece of data, claiming that "[t]he benefits of increased incarceration would be enjoyed disproportionately by black Americans."(4) Assessing the extent to which African Americans enjoyed the claimed benefits of the policy, however, is difficult.(5) Unfortunately, drug selling and drug use are prevalent in modem urban ghettoes where many poor African Americans reside, suggesting that many African Americans could benefit from federal and state crackdowns on drug offenders. At the same time, it is impossible to ignore the fact that "the young men wreaking havoc in the ghetto are still [considered] `our youngsters' in the eyes of the many decent poor and working-class black people who are sometimes their victims."(6) In light of such beliefs, it is difficult to be confident that the members of the black community(7) who are supposedly helped by prevalent and lengthy sentences for drug offenders wholeheartedly support them.(8) In short, while African Americans disproportionately suffer the problems associated with drug use and marketing, they also suffer the negative consequences associated with the current drug-law enforcement regime. Therefore, a theory that holistically and systematically assesses the costs and benefits of the current regime is necessary in order to determine whether today's "get tough" approach really benefits those who have the most to gain--and to lose--from it.

    Sociology's concept of community social organization has the untapped potential to reconceptualize the problems created by both drugs and our current drug-law enforcement regime. By focusing our attention on the characteristics of communities and the many law abiders that comprise them, rather than on the characteristics of individuals and the incentives that might lead an individual to break the law, social organization theory also provides a particularly powerful explanation of the dilemma that many African Americans face. By emphasizing the complex interactions between individual-level predictors of crime and characteristics of communities, the framework of the social organization explanation of crime is uniquely suited to address problems associated with both drugs and drug-law enforcement that are spatially concentrated in poor inner-city neighborhoods and that produce a unique set of experiences for the people who live in them.

    The primary goal of this Article is to argue that the problems related to drugs and violence in many inner city communities are unlikely to be remedied unless a community-level approach is adopted. I will make the case for this argument in five parts. Part II.A sketches the theoretical foundations of Shaw and McKay's social organization theory. The hypothesis is straightforward: when structures of community social organization are prevalent and strong, crime and delinquency should be less prevalent and vice versa. Part II.B is an evaluation of the current approach to drug law enforcement through the lens of social organization theory. This part asks whether prevalent and tough prison sentences for drug offenders can improve the social organization of impoverished minority communities. It concludes that the current approach has the potential to bolster the compromised social processes within communities of concentrated poverty if drug offending and the crime associated with it are substantially reduced. Part II.C presents a counterweight to the argument set out in Part II.B. This part explains that heavy reliance on severe formal punishments to deter drug crimes may undermine social organization by exacerbating the precursors to social organization disruption. Part II.D resolves the conflict between Parts II.B and C through an assessment of the racial dynamics of the current drug-law enforcement regime. It concludes that because African Americans are spatially concentrated in communities of hyper poverty, social organization disruption is more likely to flow from the current regime than social organization improvement.

    This critique of the current drug law enforcement policy does not conclude without offering suggestions for improvement, however. Part III of this Article, while embracing the importance of the community-level focus of social organization theory, disagrees with the approach of contemporary researchers who often focus on the potential for macro level social policies that address the "root causes" of crime to repair damaged communities. These scholars rarely, if ever, mention law enforcement except to condemn it. I argue here that law enforcement--the right kind of law enforcement--must exist as an equal partner with social programs in the project of social organization improvement. To that end, this Article concludes with specific examples of drug-law enforcement policy designed to amplify crime-fighting goals by tapping into the potential for communities to prevent the crime in their midst.


    1. A Theory of Community Social Organization

      In 1942, Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay, two Chicago School researchers, argued that low economic status, ethnic heterogeneity, and residential mobility led to the disruption of community social organization, which in turn accounted for variations in crime and delinquency.(9) To support this theory, Shaw and McKay demonstrated that high rates of juvenile delinquency were specific to geographical location and, moreover, that these high rates persisted in the same areas over many years, regardless of population turnover. Shaw and McKay concluded that if crime stayed relatively stable even when those who offended changed substantially, then there had to be something about the communities in which the individuals lived, as opposed to the individuals themselves, that ignited crime.

      Modern proponents of Shaw and McKay's theory look to factors such as family disruption and urbanization, in addition to low economic status, ethnic heterogeneity, and residential mobility, in order to predict the breakdown of social organization.(10) Additionally, modern theorists have refined the notion of social organization in order to emphasize its continuous, rather than dichotomous, character. Where Shaw and McKay concluded that disorganized communities were more likely to be plagued by crime, modern researchers emphasize differential social organization. The term "community social organization" is currently defined as the extent to which residents of a neighborhood are able to maintain effective social control and realize their common values.(11) Thus, neighborhoods are either more or less organized rather than organized or not. There are two major dimensions of neighborhood social organization: (1)...

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