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Review of the Roots of Youth Violence: Literature Reviews

Volume 5, Chapter 11:

Perceptions of Injustice, Crime and Violence10

Research evidence suggests that racial and class differences exist in people’s perceptions of how criminal justice is applied. This section of this report explores the possibility that these perceptions of injustice may help explain race and class differences in criminal behaviour, including violence.

A large body of American research indicates that most African-Americans are considerably more likely than white Americans to perceive discrimination and bias within the criminal justice system, even after controlling for age, class, education and income. For example, in a national study analyzing public perceptions of criminal injustice, Hagan and Albonetti (1982) produced three major findings:

(1) that black Americans are considerably more likely than white Americans to perceive criminal injustice (2) that regardless of race, members of the surplus population [unemployed] are significantly more likely than members of other classes to perceive criminal injustice; and (3) that class position conditions the relationship of race to the perception of criminal injustice, with the division between the races in these perceptions being most acute in the professional managerial class. (Hagan and Albonetti, 1982: 352)

Interestingly, in their analysis, racial differences in perceptions of criminal injustice appear to increase with class position. One reason for this finding “may be that whites who manage to stay out of the surplus population also are able to avoid criminal injustice, while working class blacks and black members of the PMC [professionalmanagerial class] may continue, directly or indirectly, to experience criminal injustice, perhaps partly as a consequence of the apparent contradiction in their race and class positions” (Hagan and Albonetti, 1982: 352). The opinions of the people in this national survey, and Hagan and Albonetti’s previous comment, suggest that racial bias exists within the American criminal justice system – or at least there is a clear perception of criminal injustice.

Another study that explored the impact of race on perceptions of criminal injustice also showed significant racial differences in opinions. Henderson, Cullen, Cao, Browning and Kopache (1997) surveyed residents of Ohio and found that while blacks and whites share some views on crime, they were persistently divided on the neutrality of the criminal justice system. African-American respondents expressed the belief that Blacks compared with whites were more likely to be stopped by the police, jailed, and sentenced to death, but only a minority of whites shared this view. Even after controlling for socio-demographic characteristics, experience with the criminal justice system, experience with crime, neighbourhood disorder, and political and crime-related ideology, the effect of race remained. However, contrary to Hagan and Albonetti’s finding, perceptions of injustice were strongest among the least affluent African-Americans. The findings from this study further contribute to the existence of a racial divide in perceived criminal injustice.

Similarly, in a study of perceptions of racial discrimination by the criminal justice system focusing on police, Weitzer and Tuch (1999) also found that race and class strongly predict people’s attitudes. One of their most important findings was that middle-class blacks are sometimes actually more critical of the police and justice system than lower-class blacks are. Consistent with previous research, this study shows that race is the strongest predictor of attitudes toward the police and criminal justice agencies. While whites tend to view these institutions as colour-blind, blacks were more likely to perceive bias and report personal experience of discriminatory police treatment (Weitzer and Tuch, 1999). Results also show that class does influence people’s perceptions of the justice system. Higher-educated blacks were significantly more critical of criminal justice agencies than higher educated whites were. However, while better-educated whites were more likely to perceive discrimination against blacks than less-educated whites were, still they were not inclined to see police racism as widespread (Weitzer and Tuch, 1999).

Furthermore, in a large-scale study of youth perceptions of criminal injustice among 18,000 Chicago high school students, Hagan, Shedd, and Payne (2005), using a comparative conflict analysis, found that black youth collectively perceive more criminal injustice than Latino youth do, who in turn perceive more criminal injustice than white youth do. Hagan et al. (2005) suggest that this is probably resulting from the fact that African-American youth are at a greater risk of justice system surveillance, apprehension, and mistreatment compared with Latino-Americans, who are at a greater risk than whites. The study also found that when structural sources of variation were taken into account, minority youth perceptions of injustice were more closely aligned, but set apart from those of white youth. Additionally, the study showed that the perceptions of injustice among both African-American and Latino youth varied depending on the proportion of white students in the school. As the proportion of white students increased, so did the perceptions of criminal injustice. However, once the proportion of white students ranged from about one-third to one-half, minority perceptions of criminal injustice seemed to decline. This finding suggests that certain levels of integration may produce perceptual and attitudinal changes to close the gap in racial perceptions of injustice.

Recent studies suggest that racial divisions in perceptions of injustice also exist in Canada. For example, in 1994, the Commission on Systemic Racism in the Ontario Criminal Justice System conducted a survey of over 1,200 Toronto adults who self-identified as black (417), Chinese (405) or white (435). Results from the survey suggest that, in general, people believe that the police discriminate more than criminal court judges, and black respondents are more likely to perceive police and judicial discrimination compared with either Chinese or white respondents, regardless of age, social class, or education (Wortley, 1996). The results show that 76 per cent of black Torontonians believe that the police treat them more harshly than they treat white people, and 60 per cent also feel that criminal courts treat members of their racial group worse than they do whites. Black respondents were also more likely to report police and judicial discrimination against Chinese people, even more so than Chinese people themselves. Further analysis also shows that black respondents are also more likely to perceive that discrimination toward them is severe and commonplace in comparison with their white and Chinese counterparts (Wortley 1996). These perceptions of discrimination, however, were not limited to the black community. In fact, both white (51 per cent) and Chinese (56 per cent) respondents reported that they think the police treat black people worse than they treat others. Similarly, over a third of Chinese (35 per cent) and almost 40 per cent of white respondents think that blacks are treated more harshly than others by the courts (Wortley 1996). Although a significant proportion of the respondents also feel that the Chinese are discriminated against by the police and the courts, they do not believe the discrimination to be as widespread as that faced by the black community. This finding implies a racial hierarchy of treatment by the criminal justice system, such that blacks are affected the most, whites the least, and Asians somewhere in between (Wortley, 1996).

In a much smaller-scale survey of Chinese community leaders, perceptions of discrimination in the criminal justice system were also noted. For example, almost three quarters of the Chinese representatives (73.3 per cent) in this study believe that systemic racism is prevalent in the criminal justice system, and the vast majority (84.3 per cent) feel that the current system is in need of reform (Chow, 1996). Similarly, in the Commission’s survey above, Chinese respondents thought that they suffered differential treatment about half of the time. In addition, about a quarter (23.9 per cent) of Chinese leaders feel that Chinese accused are treated as guilty by the courts (Chow, 1996). A significant proportion of these community leaders (40.8 per cent) also believe that racial and ethnic minorities in general are less likely to receive attractive plea-bargaining offers. Furthermore, over a third (36.6 per cent) of the sample feels that racial and ethnic minorities are also vulnerable to discriminatory treatment within prisons. Moreover, “over half of the respondents (54.8 per cent) disagreed or strongly disagreed that most lawyers were sensitive to issues faced by ethnic and racial minorities. Only 45.1 per cent of the respondents held the view that linguistically and culturally appropriate services were readily available to members of the Chinese community” (Chow, 1996: 482). These Chinese community leaders are also clearly critical of many aspects of the criminal justice system.

Although to a lesser extent than the public generally, even justice professionals perceive that racial discrimination exists within the criminal justice system. The Commission on Systemic Racism in the Criminal Justice System also surveyed judges’ and lawyers’ perceptions of racial discrimination. The findings show substantial variation among justice professionals in their perceptions of discrimination in Ontario’s criminal courts. Significant proportions of defence lawyers and recently appointed judges in the provincial division seem to think that white and racial minority accused are not treated equally. For example, while only about one in every eight (13 per cent) crown attorneys believe that the courts do not treat white and racial minority people the same, a third of recent provincial judges (33 per cent) and defence attorneys (34 per cent) (with less than 40 per cent racial minority clientele) think this way. In addition, more than half of the defence attorneys (52 per cent) with greater than 40 per cent racial minority clientele also feel that white and racial minority accused are not treated the same way (Commission on Systemic Racism in the Ontario Criminal Justice System, 2000). These justice professionals may share an interest in the way the system is perceived, but they clearly have different views about the extent to which racial discrimination permeates the system today. Interestingly, though many justice professionals seem to flatly reject the suggestion of racial discrimination, they somehow are able to acknowledge differential treatment based on class or poverty (Commission on Systemic Racism in the Ontario Criminal Justice System, 2000). However, since class and income bias are inherent in Canadian society, it may not be perceived as a fault of justice professionals. Thus, unlike charges of racial discrimination, “since the existence of class or income bias is not thought to reflect badly on individual judges or lawyers, it may be easier for justice professionals to acknowledge this problem without feeling personally responsible for it” (Commission on System Racism in the Ontario Criminal Justice System, 2000).

Additional research shows that racial profiling further affects people’s perceptions of the justice system, especially the police. In The Usual Suspects: Race, Police Stops and Perceptions of Criminal Injustice (1997), Scot Wortley argues that police stops serve to increase perceptions of criminal injustice for black respondents, but have the opposite effect for well-educated whites and Asians. Using data from the Commission on Systemic Racism in the Ontario Criminal Justice system, conducted by York University’s Institute for Social Research (ISR), Wortley shows that black respondents, particularly males, are more much more likely than their white or Asian counterparts to be stopped and questioned by the police, regardless of age or social class. Black respondents (36.2 per cent) were also much more likely, compared with Chinese (two per cent) and white (2.7 per cent) respondents, to perceive that they were only stopped because of their race. These perceptions of profiling had an impact on their opinions of criminal injustice. According to Weitzer and Tuch (2002), “citizens’ perceptions of police stops may be considered just as important as the objective reality of such stops. Stops perceived as racially motivated may increase the frequency of confrontations between police and motorists and generate distrust of the police among those who are stopped” (Weitzer and Tuch, 2002). After controlling for age, education, income, and other variables, race was found to be the strongest predictor of perceptions of discrimination within the Canadian criminal justice system. On average, black respondents scored almost 30 points higher on the criminal injustice scale than whites or Asians did (Wortley, 1997). However, the fact that blacks are more likely to report being stopped by the police did not completely explain why they perceive more criminal injustice than whites or Asians do. While being stopped does increase perceptions of injustice for blacks, it does not seem to significantly increase these perceptions in whites or Asians. In addition, “while stops appear to marginally increase perceptions of discrimination for less educated respondents from all racial backgrounds, stops decrease perceptions of injustice for university educated whites and Asians, while dramatically increasing perceptions of criminal injustice among university educated blacks” (Wortley, 1997). Interestingly, the analysis shows a negative relationship between age at the time of immigration and perceptions of injustice inherent in the police and courts. This means that people who were either born in Canada or immigrated at an early age actually perceive more discrimination in the system than recent immigrants do. Maybe recent immigrants have experienced a more oppressive criminal justice system in their country of origin, or maybe people who have been in Canada long enough have already witnessed the racism and injustice that exists here (Wortley, 1997).

Furthermore, in a recent survey of over 3,400 Toronto high school students, perceptions of injustice by the police were found. Almost three quarters (74 per cent) of black youth reported that members of their racial group are more likely than members of other racial groups to be unfairly stopped and questioned by the police. Only 31 per cent of South Asians, 27 per cent of Asians, and 13 per cent of whites believed that this is the case for members of their racial group (Tanner and Wortley, 2002). This perception of injustice is not limited to policing. In fact, another study of 1, 870 high school students in the Metropolitan Toronto area found racial differences in the perceptions of school disciplinary practices (Ruck and Wortley, 2002). This study revealed significant racial/ethnic differences in perceptions of differential treatment. For example, “black students were significantly more likely than South Asian, Asian, White, and students from ‘other’ racial/ethnic backgrounds to perceive that teachers at their school treat students from their racial group worse or much worse than students from other racial groups” (Ruck and Wortley, 2002: 190). Similarly, black students were more likely, compared with students from all other racial groups, to believe that students from their racial background face discriminatory treatment in school suspension practices. The black students in this study also felt that students from their racial group were more likely than any other students to have the police called on them. In terms of student’s perceptions of the severity of police treatment against their racial group at school, once again black students were significantly more likely than students from the other racial/ethnic backgrounds to believe that they would be treated worse or much worse by the police (Ruck and Wortley, 2002). While minority students from all racial groups were more likely than whites to perceive discrimination, this study also shows that South Asian students, more than any other racial minority students, had perceptions of differential treatment similar to those of the Black students, though not as pronounced. It is clear that minority status is an extremely important predictor of students’ perceptions of inequality regarding how school administrators, as well as the police at school, treat them.

Further research from the United States confirms that such perceptions of discrimination are definitely not limited to the criminal justice system. Indeed, studies consistently reveal that black people, regardless of their current socio-economic position, perceive much higher levels of inequality and discrimination in education, employment, health care, and housing (Siegelman and Welch, 1991; Feagin and Sikes, 1994; Morin, 1995). In addition, while the majority of white Americans believe that black economic inequality is the result of black motivational weaknesses, most black Americans believe that inequality is the result of white racism and other structural barriers (Bobo and Kluegel, 1993; Kluegel, 1990; Feagin, 1991; Kluegel and Smith, 1986). According to Kluegel (1990), “we seem to have reached an era of stable, comfortable acceptance by whites of the black-white economic gap” (524). Research in Canada suggests that, “despite the historical differences between race relations in Canada and race relations in the United States, Canadians and Americans are roughly similar in their attitudes and behaviour toward racial minorities” (Reitz and Breton, 1998: 65). Although the social distance between the majority and the racial minorities in both countries has arguably declined over the years, a substantial gap still exists. Canadian research and government statistics can document the existence of racial inequality in economic outcomes, employment, and education – racism is still a problem (Satzewich, 1998). Similarly to findings in the American research, perceptions of social injustice, and not just criminal injustice, are widespread among racial minorities in Canada (Henry et al., 1995).

The importance of all these perceptions should not be underestimated, for “how an individual perceives his or her environment may be more important than ‘objective reality’, in that one’s perceptions will influence how one responds to the environment” (Ruck and Wortley, 2002). Some researchers have argued that the greater the perceptions of criminal injustice, the less likely people are to trust criminal justice professionals (Wortley, 1997). However, the impact of a widespread belief that the criminal justice system is unfair is only now being investigated. Indeed, Katherine Russell argues that perceptions of injustice may contribute to the higher levels of offending among the black population in America. She claims that, “for blacks the perceived existence of unfair sanctions, combined with the absence or lack of sanctions for race-based harms, cause a diminished faith in the justice system, which in turn sets the stage for criminal offending” (Russell, 1996: 609). Considering the strength of the current racial divide in perceived injustice, it is important to explore its consequences, for there may be an important link between perceptions of injustice and criminal offending that needs to be considered.

Linking Perceptions of Injustice and Crime

A review of some theoretical literature suggests that a connection between perceptions of injustice and crime might exist. Several theoretical traditions allude to this connection, including Sykes and Matza’s (1957) neutralization theory, Tyler’s (1990) compliance theory, Sherman’s (1997) defiance theory, and Agnew’s (1992) general strain theory (GST), though it is not fully articulated. Combining the concepts from these theories and the works they have produced demonstrates how perceptions of injustice can lead to crime. For example, Sykes and Matza’s (1957) neutralization theory suggests that delinquents, like most people, are committed to conventional beliefs. They claim that “the juvenile delinquent would appear to be at least partially committed to the dominant social order in that he frequently exhibits guilt or shame when he violates its proscriptions, accords approval to certain conforming figures, and distinguishes between appropriate and inappropriate targets for his deviance” (Sykes and Matza, 1957: 666). According to Sykes and Matza, the norms and rules of society are flexible depending on the time, place, persons, and social circumstances, and this is reflected in the “defences to crimes” provided in the criminal law (i.e., pleas such as necessity, insanity, self-defence etc.) As such, they argue that “much delinquency is based on what is essentially an unrecognized extension of defenses to crimes, in the form of justifications for deviance that are seen as valid by the delinquent but not by the legal system or society at large” (Sykes and Matza, 1957: 666). These rationalizations more or less protect the individual from self-blame and the blame of others after the fact, and sometimes these rationalizations actually precede deviant behaviour, making it more possible. In this way, “disapproval flowing from internalized norms and conforming others in the social environment is neutralized, turned back, or deflected in advance” (Sykes and Matza, 1957: 667).

Sykes and Matza make a key point that research on deviant behaviour tends to overlook: throughout the process of learning these techniques of neutralization (before or after committing a crime), delinquents often perceives themselves as more sinned against than sinning (Sykes and Matza, 1957: 667). They also note that “on a priori grounds it might be assumed that these justifications for deviance will be more readily seized by segments of society for whom a discrepancy between common social ideals and social practice is most apparent” (Sykes and Matza, 1957: 669). In other words, delinquent individuals, on some level, believe that someone or a group of individuals has treated them unjustly in some way. Then, by using the techniques of neutralization, they are able to simultaneously maintain the core values of society and yet view their violations as “acceptable” if not “right” under the given circumstances. Sykes and Matza identify five major justifications: denial of responsibility, denial of injury, denial of the victim, condemnation of the condemners, and appeal to higher loyalties (Sykes and Matza, 1957). Basically, in denial of responsibility, delinquents blame forces outside their individual control for their deviant activity (e.g., unloving parents, bad friends, or a poverty-stricken neighbourhood). The denial of injury relates to instances where delinquents feel that no harm was done to anyone (e.g., vandalism or auto theft), whereas in denial of the victim, delinquents puts themselves in a position of authority, deciding what is right and wrong in society (e.g., attacks on homosexuals or hate crimes against racial minorities). The fourth technique is the condemnation of the condemners, which is another way of saying “rejecting those who have rejected you.” Essentially, delinquents shift attention from their wrongdoing by attacking the actions of those who disapprove of them. Sometimes, this cynicism becomes hardened and is directed against those who are supposed to enforce the norms of society (e.g., police and teachers). The appeal to higher loyalties suggests that delinquents choose to give in to the demands of their closer social groups (e.g., siblings, gang members, friends). They do not reject the norms of society, but “other norms, held to be more pressing or involving a higher loyalty, are accorded precedence” (Sykes and Matza, 1957: 669). It is clear that some of these techniques of neutralization appear to be better suited than others to particular deviant acts. Nonetheless, Sykes and Matza argue that these neutralizations are critical in reducing the effectiveness of social controls, and that they lie behind a large share of delinquent behaviours (Sykes and Matza, 1957: 669).

Recent American research suggests that such neutralizations are in fact associated with various deviant behaviours. For example, Coleman (1987) makes quite a case for the existence of these beliefs. He claims that “there are...ample data from both sociological research and the public statements of convicted offenders to construct a typology of the techniques of neutralization used by white-collar criminals” (411). Indeed, in his review of the well-established literature on white-collar crime, he illustrates at least six such neutralizations, which often involve the idea that it was a push of necessity. Support for the reality of neutralizations has also been found in relation to violence. Agnew (1994) used data from the second and third wave of the National Youth Survey (1978 and 1979) to examine the effects of neutralizations regarding violence. He found that most youth had internalized conventional beliefs and generally disapproved of delinquency (Agnew, 1994: 570). Only a small percentage of respondents showed approval of indifference to violence. However, consistent with Sykes and Matza, the majority of youth accepted one or more neutralizations for violence, and the acceptance of neutralizations was found to have a positive effect on violence. Agnew also found that neutralizations had the greatest effect on violence among youth with delinquent peers and those who disapproved of violence in general (Agnew, 1994). The findings from Coleman and Agnew’s studies lend support to Sykes and Matza’s neutralization theory; however, explaining the cause of these justifications for crime is more difficult. Coleman notes that “it is one thing to recognize the existence and operation of techniques of neutralization at various levels of society and in relation to various kinds of delinquency and crime, but it is quite another to account for the origins of the motivations that lead to these neutralizations” (Hagan et al., 1998: 3).

Perceptions of injustice could be added to the list of neutralization techniques. If offenders believe that the system is unjust, and that their chances of success are blocked, they may be less likely to trust officials and may be more likely to lose faith in the system and resort to crime. It is plausible that the perceived injustice essentially becomes a rationalization or justification for criminal behaviour. Indeed, work in the area of legitimacy and compliance suggests that people who believe that life is unfair, and that their best efforts are blocked by external forces such as racism or class interests, are more likely to break the law. In Why People Obey the Law, Tyler (1990) contrasts the instrumental and normative perspectives of compliance. The instrumental perspective suggests that people obey the law because of the threat of punishments they might face if they do not. This is in line with deterrence literature. By contrast, the normative perspective has to do with personal beliefs about morality and legitimacy. Morality deals with obeying the law because you feel that it is just, whereas legitimacy deals with obeying the law because you believe the authority enforcing the law is fair and has the right to dictate behaviour (Tyler, 1990). If compliance is appropriate because of an individuals’ beliefs about how they should behave, then they will voluntarily assume the obligation to follow legal rules. Tyler argues that criminal justice authorities who focus mainly on the deterrent aspects of the law have long ignored the normative aspects of compliance –morality and legitimacy.

Using data from two waves of phone interviews in the Chicago area (1984 and 1985), Tyler examines the extent to which normative factors influence compliance with the law, independently of deterrence judgments (Tyler, 1990: 4). This longitudinal study asked questions regarding normative and instrumental views concerning the law as well as people’s behaviour toward the law. Tyler found that legitimacy and perceived fairness of legal institutions are related to compliance with the law: the weaker the perception of fairness, the more frequent and severe the non-compliance of respondents. As Tyler states, “people obey the law because they believe it is proper to do so, they react to their experiences by evaluating their justice or injustice, and in evaluating the justice of their experiences they consider factors unrelated to outcome, such as whether they have had a chance to state their case and been treated with dignity and respect” (Tyler, 1990: 178).

Tyler’s theory of normative compliance with respect to the law has very practical implications. While bad experiences have been found to have a significant impact on a perceptions of the quality of police service (Skogan, 2006), Tyler (1990) asserts that, if police officers and judges are more responsive to people’s normative concerns (legitimate and moral), they will be able to exercise their authority more effectively – their rules will be accepted and obeyed voluntarily. Tyler argues that legal authorities gain when they receive cooperation from the public, and the key factor shaping public behaviour is the fairness of the processes used by legal agents (2003). However, when procedural justice expectations are not met, citizens may perceive mistreatment, which has the potential to create conflict between the police and the communities they serve. If members of disadvantaged communities, for example, feel marginalized by the police, they may cease to cooperate with legal authorities and rely on informal methods to address conflicts, which may lead to increases in violence (Kane, 2005). In a study of compromised police legitimacy, Kane (2005) found that police misconduct and over-enforcement predicted increases in the violent crime rates in precincts characterized by high or extreme disadvantage. This study highlighted the importance of police departments’ meeting procedural justice expectations, especially in disadvantaged communities.

In addition, in a study of over 1,600 Los Angeles and Oakland residents in 1997 and 1998, Huo and Tyler (2000) found that people just want fairness in the process of rendering justice, whatever the outcome, though a positive outcome undoubtedly increased self-reported compliance among all ethnic groups (Huo and Tyler, 2000). The results showed that perceptions of unfair treatment were more prevalent among African-Americans and Latinos compared with whites, although they shared the understanding of what constitutes fair treatment. For all three groups, the perception of fair treatment was the most important factor in forming their reactions to the police and courts, and even more important than concerns about the outcomes of the process. As such, Huo and Tyler (2000) suggested that efforts on the part of legal authorities to act more fairly would lead to more positive reactions and higher rates of compliance among minority residents. Unfortunately, research consistently shows that visible minorities already tend to have more negative attitudes toward the police and are less likely to perceive officers as legitimate sources of authority (Engel, 2003; Rosenbaum et al., 2005; Skogan, 2005; Tyler, 2005; Weitzer and Tuch, 2005), which may have a bearing on their noncompliance with the law and rates of offending.

This is consistent with Sherman’s assertions of defiance theory. By combining concepts of Braithwaite’s (1989) reintegrative shaming, Tyler’s (1990) study of compliance, and Scheff and Retzingers’s (1991) sociology of “master emotions,” Sherman offers a specific and general theory of defiance to explain the conditions under which punishment increases crime, based on four key concepts (legitimacy, social bond, shame, and pride) in the emotional response to sanctioning experiences:

Defiance is the net increase in the prevalence, incidence, or seriousness of future offending against a sanctioning community caused by a proud, shameless reaction to the administration of a criminal sanction. Specific or individual defiance is the reaction of one person to that person’s own punishment. General defiance is the reaction of a group or collectivity to the punishment of one or more of its members. (Sherman, 1997: 459).

This theory argues that both specific and general defiance result from punishments that are perceived as unfair or excessive, unless deterrent effects (such as social bonds, shame, and pride) can counterbalance defiance and render the net effect of sanctions irrelevant (Sherman, 1997). In short, when offenders experience sanctioning conduct as illegitimate, future defiance is provoked, but if they experience it as legitimate, then sanctions are more likely to produce future deterrence (Sherman, 1997: 448). Thus, Sherman concludes, “crime might be reduced more by police and courts treating all citizens with fairness and respect than by increasing punishments” (Sherman, 1993: 445). Consistent with defiance theory, Piquero and Bouffard (2003) found that police actions that are likely to be perceived as unfair and stigmatizing increase the likelihood that citizens behave defiantly toward police officers. Recent support was also found in a Canadian study, which uses Sherman’s defiance theory to explain gang membership. Using a targeted sampling strategy, over 500 urban youth attending schools in neighbourhoods known by police to have considerable gang activity were surveyed in 2001. The study found that the four principal concepts in defiance theory (legitimacy of sanctioning agents, social bond, acknowledgment of shame, and pride expressed by offenders) were predictors of gang membership. Even after including peer delinquency and definitions favourable to law violation in a multivariate analysis, legitimacy and pride remained significantly linked to the likelihood of gang membership (Brownfield, 2006).

While the research thus far has focused on the perceived fairness or legitimacy of the criminal justice system in isolation, recent Canadian research suggests that perceptions of justice in other areas of social life might be equally important in predicting deviant behaviour. In 1993, Baron and Hartnagel (1997) conducted a six-month study of 200 street youth in Edmonton, Alberta, in order to examine the role familial, school, labour market and street factors play in their criminality. They argued that people who blame themselves for their predicament might be less likely than those who are unwilling to accept responsibility to engage in crime (1997, 410). Baron and Hartnagel found that individuals who attributed their unemployment and poverty to outside forces – including government policies and corporate decision-making – were much more likely than those who blamed themselves to engage in criminal activity (Baron and Hartnagel, 1997). Criminal behaviour was influenced by such immediate factors as homelessness, drug and alcohol use, and criminal peers who engage in illegal behaviour, as well as a lack of income, job experiences, and perceptions of a blocked opportunity structure. Youths who suffered from long-term unemployment and rejected the meritocratic ideology were more likely to be involved in violent offences (Baron and Hartnagel, 1997). Their sparse employment histories seemed to undermine perceptions of equal opportunity, leading youths to blame the government, private industry, and the economy for their condition, which ultimately increased their participation in crime (Baron and Hartnagel, 1997: 425). The combination of these conditions and perceptions leave youths believing that economic success is more likely through accessing the illegitimate labour market of property and drug crime. It is these very conditions and perceptions that “lead youths to strike out violently in a display of resentment, bitterness, and frustration” (Baron and Hartnagel, 1997: 425). This is precisely what was previously discussed in the section on strain theories of violence: strain creates pressures and incentives to engage in criminal coping as a response to stressful life experiences.

Borrowing from the perspective of Robert Agnew’s (1992) revised general strain theory (GST), perceptions of injustice can be viewed as stressors that can lead to delinquency as a coping mechanism. GST is one of the leading theories on crime and delinquency, and it essentially argues that strain or negative treatment by others leads to negative emotions, particularly anger and frustration, which necessitate coping strategies. Delinquency is one possible response to the pressure created by these negative emotions (Agnew, 2002). GST identifies three main sources of strain: 1) situations that block positively valued goals (e.g., money, status, autonomy); 2) situations that remove positively valued stimuli (e.g., loss of spouse, theft of valued possessions); and 3) situations that produce negative stimuli (e.g., verbal or physical abuse). In response to strain, some individuals feel negative emotions (e.g., anger) and act out their aggression on people, while others engage in delinquent behaviours such as drug use, and property crime (Agnew, 2004).

Agnew suggests that there are factors that condition the effect of strain on crime (e.g., self-esteem, social support, positive relationships with adults, and attachment to school), which can reduce the negative outcomes of strain, and help explain why only some youth become delinquent (Agnew, 2004; Morash and Moon, 2007). GST attempts to specify some of the factors that influence whether individuals cope with strain in a criminal manner, and claims that when individuals have a low tolerance for strain, poor coping skills, and few conventional supports, and are disposed to crime because of personality traits conducive to crime, they are more likely to cope with strain through crime. Indeed research by Agnew et al. (2002) found that individuals with negative emotionality and low constraints were more likely to respond to strain with criminal behaviour. Recent work on GST suggests that there are some strains that are more likely to result in crime. They share the following characteristics: 1) they are seen as unjust, 2) they are high in magnitude, 3) they are associated with low social control, and 4) they create pressure to engage in criminal coping (Agnew, 2001). Agnew actually identifies experiences with prejudice and discrimination, based on ascribed characteristics like race/ethnicity, as one of several strains with these characteristics that increase the probability of crime (Agnew, 2004: 39).

Studies of GST consistently show that strain is associated with criminal behaviour. For example, a study by Vowell and May (2000) examined the connection of several theoretical factors that ultimately lead to violent behaviour, and tested whether race conditions the link between perceptions of blocked opportunity and violence. Using survey data from 7,012 European and African-American high-school students, the study found, contrary to expectations, that poverty status only increased perceptions of blocked opportunity among European Americans. It was suggested that the effect of poverty on perceived blocked opportunity may be mediated by some social mechanism among African-American youth. The study also showed that perceived blocked opportunity significantly predicted gang membership and violent behaviour for both racial groups, though the effect was stronger among European-American youth, which demonstrated that race conditions the link between perceptions of blocked opportunity and violence.

Most frequently, GST research shows that there is a clear relationship between strain, anger, and violence, in which strain seems to predict anger, which in turn predicts deviance. More specifically, anger is positively linked to violence (Agnew, 2004; Baron, 2004). For example, Mazerolle, Burton, Cullen, Evans, and Payne (2000) examined whether strain has direct or indirect effects, through the mediating effects of anger, on three types of delinquency (violence, drug use, and school-related deviance). Data were obtained from a questionnaire completed in 1991 by students in grades 10 through 12 at a high school in a suburban (middle-class and upper-class) metropolitan area of the US Midwest. The study found that strain had direct independent effects on violence, even after controlling for other influences, but not on illicit drug use or school-related deviance. The study revealed that violence is related to exposure to strain, deviant affiliations, and being male. The criminogenic effects of strain on drug use were conditional on weak social bonds and exposure to deviant affiliations. Although (contrary to GST) results showed that anger failed to mediate the effects of strain on delinquent outcomes, the models predicting violence revealed that the effects of anger operate through strain. These findings are consistent with the view that youths with high levels of anger disproportionately experience and/or perceive strain in circumstances or events, which can lead to violence.

Furthermore, Sigfusdottir, Farkas and Silver (2004) explored whether depressed mood and anger mediate the effects of family conflict on delinquency. The study used data from a national survey of Icelandic adolescents ages 14–16 in the compulsory grades 9 and 10 of the Icelandic secondary school system. The results showed that exposure to arguments and fights at home are positively related to both depressed mood and anger among adolescents. Consistent with general strain theory, family conflict increased the likelihood of delinquency. Findings also indicated that anger was positively associated with delinquent behaviour, but depressed mood had no effect on delinquency. The study found that the effects of strain on delinquency were different among boys and girls, with family conflict showing stronger effects on delinquency among boys. The study suggested that while girls and boys experience anger in reaction to stress, the fact that girls experience higher levels of depressed mood may explain why they are less likely to become delinquent.

Drawing on previous theoretical traditions, research shows that when people perceive that life is unjust and that causes beyond their control are inhibiting them, they may be more inclined to break the law. Neutralization theory illustrates how perceptions of injustice can be used to rationalize criminal behaviour and encourage violence, and compliance and defiance theories provide a framework for understanding how perceived injustices in the application of laws and sanctions can lead to delinquency. In addition, strain theory articulates the process through which perceptions of injustice can produce negative emotions that result in delinquency as a coping strategy for feelings of strain. Taken together, the synthesis of these theories suggests that there is a relationship between perceptions of injustice and criminal behaviour, which proposed a new approach to understanding crime through a theory of perceptual injustice.

Perceptions of Injustice and Violence

There is rising concern that perceived injustice causes criminal behaviour (Hagan, Shedd and Payne, 2005). However, to date, few studies exist that investigate the relationship between perceptions of injustice and crime. An effort was made over a decade ago, when Taylor et al. (1994) conducted a study that explored the relationship between racial mistrust and dispositions to deviance among a sample of adolescent boys in Miami, Florida, with a focus on the African-American, Haitian, and Caribbean island black boys. The study suggested that racial mistrust might encourage dissatisfaction with the law and a disposition to deviance counter to law-abiding expectations, the threat being that some adolescents may retreat from essential activities and act on their distrustful feelings by engaging in behaviours that deviate from the norm. The study found no significant differences in dispositions to deviance among the three ethnic groups. However, when compared with non-Blacks, African-Americans and Haitians were more willing to violate the law. The study also showed a strong relationship between racial mistrust and disposition to deviance for all three ethnic groups. However, in this study, mistrust was only measured among the black youth, and only involved distrust toward white people in general and teachers in particular, and there was no measure of actual deviant outcomes. As such, this study did not fully explore perceptions of injustice and crime.

Nevertheless, there is a more recent study by McCord and Ensminger (2002), which investigated the link between discrimination and crime. Although this study found that self-reports of discrimination were related to arrests for violent crime, it was criticized for using a dichotomous measure of discrimination, which did not allow for any analysis of the extent to which the risk of crime becomes greater with increased exposure to discrimination. In addition, the study failed to control for factors such as prior involvement in crime or affiliation with deviant peers, which are necessary to establish whether it is strain (discrimination that causes delinquency) or labelling processes (deviant reputation that leads to discrimination) that accounts for the correlation between discrimination and crime.

Correcting several of these problems, Simons, Chen, Stewart and Brody (2003) provide the most recent related study. Their study examines the relationship between exposure to racial-ethnic discrimination and delinquent behaviour, and the emotional and cognitive factors that mediate the association. The study uses two waves of data collected in Georgia and Iowa, one in 1997 and the other in 1999, from self-report questionnaires and interviews of 718 African-American children aged 10 to 12 (at Wave I) and their caregivers. After controlling for quality of parenting, affiliation with deviant peers and prior conduct problems, the study found that discrimination predicted delinquent behaviour. Using structural equation modelling, the study showed that, for boys, the association between discrimination and delinquency is mediated by feelings of anger and depression and by the belief that aggression is a necessary interpersonal strategy. Anger and depression was also found to mediate part of the effect of discrimination on delinquency for girls, but discrimination continued to show a small but significant direct effect. These findings extend strain theory by including depression as a significant negative emotion and by viewing racial discrimination as a stressor, and signify the importance of including racial discrimination in explanations of delinquency, particularly among African-Americans. The study suggested that further investigations of the link between discrimination and delinquency should focus on racial socialization practices within African-American families and peer groups to better understand what black children are taught about white people, how to address discrimination, and the probability that black children will be successful in a racist society (Simons et al., 2003).

The research thus far has clearly shown that there are racial differences in perceptions of injustice, but the impact of this reality on crime is only now being investigated. While current research seems to focus on the perceptions of blacks in relation to their offending, it is important to note that, theoretically, perceptions of injustice have the potential to explain differences in offending among offenders of all racial backgrounds. If investigations into perceptions of injustice and criminal behaviour lead us to a better understanding of racial patterns of offending, future research will have to ask what can be done about changing these perceptions, and then outline the steps for that to be achieved. In this regard, it seems that criminal and social injustice, real or perceived, has major implications for our society. What little research exists suggests that perceptions of injustice appear to be positively related to crime and delinquency, but it is obvious that much more research is needed before conclusive findings will be reached and effective policies can be created and implemented to change people’s perceptions and reduce criminal behaviour.


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10 This section was prepared with the assistance of Andrea McCalla, PhD candidate, Centre of Criminology, University of Toronto.


Volume 1. Findings, Analysis and Conclusions

Volume 2. Executive Summary

Volume 3. Community Perspectives Report

Volume 4. Research Papers

Volume 5. Literature Reviews