Community crime control refers to the use of criminal justice mediums in solving social problems or preventing crime. Examples of this proactive approach to crime control include neighborhood watch, community watch, and beautification projects. A primary assumption is that crime is a social problem, rather than an individual problem, disrupting the community structure.
The goal of community crime control is to empower the community by decreasing the fear of victimization and to foster positive participation in the community through the reduction of crime. These goals connect to theories of social control and social disorganization. Travis Hirschi’s social control theory suggests that desistance from offending requires attachment to others, commitment to conformity with pro-social facets, involvement with conventional norms, and the belief that a commonality exists within the community. A corollary is Clifford R. Shaw and Henry D. McKay’s social disorganization theory, which proposes that community disorder fosters crime.
The propensity to crime is not an innate individual characteristic; rather, crime is a function of the individual’s environment and level of social interaction. If marked by vague ties to community members and a disconnect from the mainstream culture, interaction with community members is often superficial, thus hindering the achievement of social capital. Social capital refers to pro-social interaction that fosters conformity to the conventional norms of a community. This lack of interaction may lead to a decrease in trust and cooperation with community organizations and law enforcement and, thus, a decrease in social capital.
This trust that is imperative to the success of community crime control, also known as collective efficacy, includes how community members share expectations of social control. The goal of collective efficacy is to increase trust and the level of social control in the community, as community disorder usually indicates a lack of informal social control. With disintegration of the family and isolation from the community and the mainstream comes a greater reliance on formal social control, or the presence of a guardian. The guardian need not be a physical entity, such as a police officer, but could also include surveillance and tracking mechanisms, as well as neighborhood watch.
Decriminalization is an aspect of community crime control. Instead of criminalizing disorder such as homelessness, drug abuse, and mental illness, it seeks to increase positive integration into the community. Otherwise, neighborhood disorder has a threefold impact: the undermining of social control, the increased fear of victimization, and the destabilization of the housing market. As a result, trust and commitment to the community decreases. Also hindering collective efficacy is overcrowding, demoralization, and hopelessness. The resulting neighborhood instability— linked with socioeconomic status—can foster criminal activity.
One approach in community crime control is broken windows policing. Broken windows policing, also known as disorder policing, seeks to rid the community of crimes that diminish the quality of life, which in turn should reduce other crimes. Although this is a popular focus of policing, no data yet show its use actually improves the quality of life or stops the downward community spiral. Another approach, community policing, used at least partially by approximately 80 percent of law enforcement agencies, includes participation within the community, citizen empowerment, and partnership with community agencies. Because community crime control is most effective when citizens’ opinions and views are considered, community policing focuses on involving the public in defining what disorder is, solving community problems by promoting communication, and increasing decentralization and police responsiveness to the needs of the community. The elements of community policing include protecting citizens’ rights, maintaining order, relying on the cooperation of citizens for information and assistance, and responding to community issues.
Because the organization of the community affects voluntary efforts and interaction with law enforcement, the use of these policies differs depending on the neighborhood, with poor, minority neighborhoods tending to be the least involved. Frustration with the frequent changes of policy, the conflicts among community organizations, and distrust of the police are factors that undermine community cooperation.
Another facet of community crime control is community prosecution, such as when the community acts as agents in stopping quality-of-life offenses such as drug involvement. Such community participation, however, is limited to members acting as witnesses. This reactive approach, unlike a proactive one, ignores the root causes of problems such as prostitution, gambling, drug abusing, and loitering.
Community dispute resolution councils and community corrections are also aspects of community crime control. Community dispute resolution councils are neighborhood committees that include residents, attorneys, and service providers in solving community problems. Parole and probation are examples of community corrections. Both refer to methods of sanctions in which the offender serves time within the community while still being responsible to the court. This method helps facilitate offender reentry into the community. Due to get-tough-on-crime policies, intermediate sanctions now include intensive supervision, home incarceration, and electronic monitoring.
The jury is still out on the value of community crime control. The research shows mixed results, with some authorities citing the decrease of fear and others citing an increase of isolation. Critics contend that, instead of helping, community crime control weakens communities and diminishes social capital. Those benefiting from collective efficacy are those who need it least: white, middle-class communities. The challenge is not just to protect the rights of community members but also to find better ways to foster community involvement.
- Akers, Ronald L. 2000. Criminological Theories: Introduction, Evaluation and Application. Los Angeles: Roxbury.
- Gottfredson, Michael R. and Travis Hirschi. 1990. A General Theory of Crime. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
- Sampson, Robert J., Jeffery D. Morenoff, and Thomas Gannon-Rowley. 2002. “Assessing ‘Neighborhood Effects’: Social Processes and New Directions in Research.” Annual Review of Sociology 28:443-78.
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