Understanding Crime Control Theater

Published date01 June 2018
Date01 June 2018
Subject MatterArticles
Understanding Crime
Control Theater: Do Sample
Type, Gender, and Emotions
Relate to Support for Crime
Control Theater Policies?
Logan A. Yelderman
, Monica K. Miller
, Shelby Forsythe
and Lorie Sicafuse
Policies such as America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response Alerts, safe haven laws, Megan’s
law, and three-strikes laws have provided the public with a feeling of safety and security. However,
research has provided evidence that disputes their effectiveness. These types of laws and policies
have become known as “crime control theater” (CCT) because they appear to be effective, serve
the public’s best interests, and provide a crime control purpose but are largely ineffective and have
unintended negative consequences. Using self-affirmation and emotion theory, this study examines
potential explanations as to why individuals might support CCT policies. It also investigates whether
support differs based on relevant characteristics (e.g., gender, sample type, and preexisting beliefs
about policy effectiveness). Results suggest that females and Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk)
workers tend to support CCT policies more than males and college students. Further, the rela-
tionship between gender and support was mediated by anticipatory guilt, and this effect was stronger
for individuals who did not believe in the effectiveness of the policy. Results suggest that individuals
who believe the policy is effective will support it more than those who do not, regardless of their
anticipated guilt. In contrast, those who doubt the policy only support it if they anticipate feeling
guilty; this effect is stronger for women. Results can help explain why people support policies that
are largely ineffective and suggest that relevance to the issue can help explain why some groups are
more supportive than others.
crime policy, court s/law, gender and crim e/justice, other , crime prevention, l aw enforcement/
Psychology Department, Prairie View A&M University, Prairie View, TX, USA
University of Nevada, Reno, Reno, NV, USA
Mental Health Police Liaison with Eyerly Ball, Ames, IA, USA
Courtroom Sciences, Inc., Irving, TX, USA
Corresponding Author:
Logan A. Yelderman, Psychology Department, Prairie View A&M University, PO Box 519, MS 2600, Prairie View, TX 77446,
Email: layelderman@pvamu.edu
Criminal Justice Review
2018, Vol. 43(2) 147-173
ª2017 Georgia State University
Reprints and permission:
DOI: 10.1177/0734016817710695
Over the past two decades, disproportionate media focus on cases of murder, sexual assault by
strangers, and child abduction has instilled a pervasive sense of fear and moral panic in American
society, culminating in intense legislative pressure to address public concerns over violent crime
(Zgoba, 2004a, 2004b). In response, lawmakers hastily enacted a number of policies (e.g., three-
strikes-and-you’re-out laws, the America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response [AMBER ]
Alert child abduction system, Megan’s Law sex offender requirements, and safe haven laws) offer-
ing simple solutions to complex social problems. Although these policies vary in strategy and scope,
they share striking similarities. Most notably, such reactive crime control policies enjoy widespread
public support in spite of empirical failure and unintended negative outcomes (Armstrong, Miller, &
Griffin, 2015; Griffin & Miller, 2008; Hammond, Miller, & Griffin, 2010; Levenson & D’Amora,
2007; Miller, Griffin, Clinkenbeard, & Thomas, 2009; Sicafuse & Miller, 2010, 20 12; Turner,
Sundt, & Applegate, 1995). Because hasty policy responses to rare or heinous crimes create the
illusion of crime control despite their ineffectiveness, Griffin and Miller (2008) argue that they are
merely a form of “crime control theater” (CCT). These types of hypervigilant responses and sym-
bolic crime control rhetoric also appear in homeland security policy and presidential addresses,
which can lead to symbolic representati ons of security and patrol (Costanza & Kilb urn, 2005;
Kilburn, Costanza, Metchik, & Borgeson, 2011; Marion & Oliver, 2013). CCT policies might persist
despite changes in public sentiment because of the initial affective appeal at the time the policies
were enacted.
Griffin and Miller (2008) conceptualize policies and responses representative of CCT as “a public
response or set of responses to crime which generate the appearance, but not the fact, of crime
control” (p. 160). In essence, CCT allows government officials and law enforcement to visibly
demonstrate their commitment to public safety at the expense of practical utility. There are four
main aspects of responses that exemplify CCT (Griffin & Miller, 2008; Hammond et al., 2010).
First, such policies are hastily enacted in response to societal moral panic over horrifying crimes that
are often perpetuated by media sensationalism. Second, these policies are overwhelmingly sup-
ported and promoted by government and law enforcement officials. Third, these responses resonate
with cultural perceptions of the antecedents and solutions to crime. They focus on the mythic nature
of innocent victims and civilians and instill a sense of empowerment within the community. Finally,
these policies are often met with empirical failure and sometimes unintended negative conse-
quences. Yet, they receive broad support from the public (Griffin & Miller, 2008; Hammond
et al., 2010).
Outcomes of CCT
Numerous researchers have noted that intense media focus on rare and heinous crimes often cata-
lyzes the development and implementation of questionable crime control policies (e.g., Hammond
et al., 2010; Skolnick, 1994; Surrette, 2007; Zgoba, 2004a). Indeed, both Megan’s Law and the
AMBER Alert system originated from highly publicized cases involving child abduction, sexual
assault, and murder (Pennsylvania State Police, 2008; U.S. Department of Justice, 2009).
Research exploring the outcomes of responses characteristic of CCT reveals that these well-
intended measures are often inadequate means of addressing crime (e.g., Griffin, Miller, Hoppe,
Rebideaux, & Hammack, 2008). Policymakers might not discover the true effects of a policy until
after it has been implemented for a set amount of time. Moreover, CCT policies, though largely
ineffective, might be implemented effectively in some juris dictions or populations, whether by
chance or learning from past failures (see Berman & Fox, 2016). Even if these successes are few,
public support might persist when failures are apparent in the hopes that the policy become s
generally effective or has the potential to be effective. The public might see such successes as
148 Criminal Justice Review 43(2)

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