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Prevention: Environmental and Technological Strategies


The idea that rates of crime and delinquency are concentrated in some spatial configurations is widely accepted, especially at the macro level (see Gillis, 1996). However, whether these associations between environment and behavior are causal, or the product of selection, is less clear. For example, cities depend on migration from rural areas for their survival and growth because of the relative infertility of urban populations. Since rural migrants to cities are not randomly selected, people in some types of circumstances are more likely to migrate than are those in others. It is possible that people who leave rural areas for the bright lights of the city are also less bound by family and other local ties, more inclined to take risks, and more likely to become involved in crime than are those who stay put. The effect of this selection would be to lower crime rates in rural areas while simultaneously increasing them in urban areas, producing a positive correlation between urbanization and rates of crime. In fact, cities or neighborhoods may even attract excitement seekers or criminals from rural areas who travel to cities only to engage in crime (Gibbs and Erickson).

The attraction to large urban areas of thrill-seekers and people in search of the unusual is easy to understand. Cities are not simply large versions of small towns. They are different. Small, dispersed populations, such as those in rural areas, villages, and towns cannot support markets for highly specialized goods and services. In contrast, the large, diverse populations of cities can harbor a wide range of atypical and criminal interests that merge as deviant subcultures. This may explain why cross-sectional analyses show that the rate of criminal activity in the U.S. not only varies between rural and urban areas, but directly with the current size of metropolitan populations as well (Fischer).

Moreover, once areas become known for the specialized goods and services which they provide, both short- and long-run migration patterns are likely to be affected, further enhancing the reputation of the area. Even Calhoun's rats who were able to nest in low-density sectors frequently ventured into the high-density areas of the site, apparently for excitement. This is consistent with the idea that specific environments not only operate as entertainment areas, but as "deviance service centers." Although they can be as large as states (e.g., Nevada, when it first legalized gambling, prostitution, and quick divorces), or metropolitan areas such as Atlantic City, deviance service centers are most often a section of a city, a peripheral neighborhood, or a suburb. One of the most famous of these centers was Southwark, directly across the Thames from London. In Shakespeare's time (the turn of the seventeenth century) he and his Globe Theatre were situated in Southwark, providing popular adult entertainment. For additional amusement, an abundance of drinking establishments, hotels, brothels, and prostitutes accommodated patrons who were unable or unwilling to make it back to London before curfew. Jails, including the original "Clink," housed more disruptive revellers, and Winchester Cathedral was not only available for repentance, but for licensing prostitutes. Thus, without being inside the physical, political, or moral boundaries of the city, Southwark provided both legitimate and illegitimate entertainment for the people of Elizabethan London (Gillis, 1995).

The out-migration of conformists can also distribute crime and delinquency differentially in urban areas. Some suburban neighborhoods are not only exclusive to those who can afford to live in them but, as "gated communities" with private security, even restrict access to residents and authorized visitors. Even entire suburban communities may be restricted, as "edge cities" near but off limits to the residents of core areas. On the other side, there are neighborhoods and even specific cities that have been not only abandoned by employable residents, but by industry and legitimate economic opportunities as well (Wilson). In this respect, the extent to which gated communities and edge cities enjoy low rates of crime is directly related to increasing crime rates in inner cities.

The policy implications here are both social and legal. Disorganized areas of inner cities require assistance at both structural and cultural levels to escape the downward spiral in which they are caught. Legitimate economic opportunities and the motivation and ability to take advantage of them are lacking. If employment opportunities exist, they are likely to be illegal, and this may or may not be viewed as a problem in neighboring jurisdictions. With respect to deviance service centers, activities that are considered deviant or criminal when committed in one section of a jurisdiction need not be prosecuted as such in others. Elizabethan London, contemporary Amsterdam, and other cities containing deviance service centers represent efforts to contain, rather than constrain, behavior that is regarded as undesirable in the wider population. This is accomplished by permitting bounded zones of the urban environment to contain outlets for both providers and consumers of disreputable activity. Whether life is better or worse for those within the service sectors is both an empirical and ethical question.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawPrevention: Environmental and Technological Strategies - Environmental Determinism And Crime, Selection, Opportunities, Constraints, And Defensible Space, Social Reaction And Offensible Space