Volume 1, No. 7 (October, 1991), pp. 107-111
THE POLITICS OF STREET CRIME: CRIMINAL PROCESS AND CULTURAL OBSESSION by Stuart A. Scheingold. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.
Reviewed by James Eisenstein (Pennsylvania State University)
As its title suggests, this book examines two distinct but related themes. One, broad in scope and speculative in nature, deals with society's cultural responses to crime and the conse- quences of this response. The other, drawing on an investigation of effects of the politics of street crime in one jurisdiction, focuses on narrower and more empirically grounded questions.
Those familiar with Stuart Scheingold's other books will not be surprised to find his treatment of the first theme provoking and insightful. He tackles a significant topic, "the forces driving America's understanding of and response to street crime." (p.172) His argument, which I will try to summarize below, is sophisticated and stimulating.
Scheingold identifies several useful conceptual distinctions and skillfully applies them to his analysis. In both the intro- ductory and concluding chapters he distinguishes between two overarching explanations for crime: the "volitional," which focuses upon individual characteristics; and the "structural," which examines material conditions in society. He describes three models which criminal justice systems can adopt in dealing with crime --the punitive model, the communitarian model, and the justice model -- and argues that all three share the premises to the volitional school's understanding. He asserts that the increasing politicization of street crime in American society plays out differently at the national and local levels. National politicians engage in a symbolic politics rich in the rhetoric of punitiveness without incurring obligations to commit material resources. Local officials, faced with the reality of operating and paying for criminal justice systems, are less anxious to politicize crime; they produce inconsistent policies (for exam- ple, police policy drawn from the "communitarian model" and moderate sentencing policy based on the "justice model") and thus less punitive, even moderate, outcomes.
How can local officials sustain this pattern of inconsistent and relatively moderate policies in the face of pressure toward punitiveness generated by the politicization of street crime in society generally? Central to his argument is the assertion that local justice systems are effectively (but not completely) insulated from such pressures. Other factors, such as a public only intermittently concerned enough about crime to make its demands felt, the random effects of political events and the personal views of key decision-makers' also contribute to this conclusion. Scheingold correctly qualifies his conclusion on the insulation of local justice officials from the politics of street crime, stating that "things have changed during the last twenty- five years" (p.164) in the public's attitudes and demands that have permanently shifted policy toward greater harshness.
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Finally, Scheingold describes some enduring dilemmas and problems produced by the politics of street crime. The divergent views of national and local politicians create a continuing tension. "Structural dislocations" in American society produce an underlying dissatisfaction among Americans. But the pressure for fundamental structural reform that might arise from this dissatisfaction is displaced and frustrated because the public's attention is diverted to the politicization of street crime. This both prevents structural reform and guarantees continuing conflict and uncertainty over what society's policies toward crime should be.
As Scheingold observes, although a number of disciplines deal tangentially with the cultural meaning of street crime, none make it their central concern. He does, and the argument out- lined above makes a good contribution to the task of addressing the cultural meaning and political effects of the politicization of crime.
This broad argument, as Scheingold acknowledges, is "avowed- ly speculative and exploratory," and is based on "extrapolations from my research rather than its manifest findings." (p.164) This raises a troubling question: just what is the relationship between his general theory and the empirical study of the politicization of crime and its effects in his research site, "Cedar City?" How successful was he in accomplishing the diffi- cult task of examining the politics of street crime and in utilizing his results to draw general conclusions?
Here my judgment is considerably less positive. Ultimately, the description of the nature and effects of the politicization of street crime in "Cedar City" and "Park County" is unconvincing and usually less sophisticated and insightful than the discus- sions of the first theme. Two notable exceptions deserve men- tion. Scheingold's description of the evolution of the police department's policies and changes in its personnel and the relationship between the chief of police and the mayor provides a rare glimpse into the dynamics of the interaction between city politics and police policy. His analysis of how the electoral defeat of two "liberal" judges resulted in "judicial prudence" in sentencing provides some intriguing glimpses into the intersec- tion of politics, perceptions, and decision makers.
Space does not permit a full description of the theoretical and methodological weaknesses of the empirical study. A summary of the major problems, however, may convey a sense of their nature and scope.
First, explicit operational definitions of key terms are often not provided, or are buried or change. No clear definition of what are defined as "street crimes" is given; at times, rates of the FBI's "Part I" crimes are used as a measure of street crime. Elsewhere, specific offenses (murder, sexual assault, aggravated assault, robbery, and burglary) are included in the analysis, while others that also might arouse public anxiety are not.
Similarly, the concept of the "politicization" of street crime is not carefully enough defined. At one point (p.31), he states that "to politicize crime is to put it on the political agenda." He further distinguishes
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between the "systemic" and "institutional" agenda. But the measures used to determine presence on either of them are often unclear or incomplete. For instance, only a content analysis of newspaper stories provides data on crime as an issue on the systemic agenda; missing are an examination of television news and advertisements. Much of the analysis of the presence of crime on the institutional agenda draws upon ballot initiatives and elections, which are cited as examples of the "most advanced stage of politicization," but electoral outcomes are incomplete measures in the absence of indicators of the perceptions of participants, budgetary outcomes, and the like. Scheingold presents a conceptually strong outline of how to study politicization when he notes that it "seems to follow an interac- tive course based on complex relationships among elected offi- cials, influential elites, media messages, and public percep- tions." However, the research design does not allow him to investigate these relationships.
The operationalizations of outcome measures also are weak. Most striking is the failure to emphasize what I consider to be the most significant effect of the politicization of crime -- the increase in the number of people incarcerated and the length of their sentences. We are told little about the capacity or population of the local jail and the state prison system, and little about how they changed during the period covered by the research. Thus, the effort to link street crime, its politicization, and its effects is rendered problematic by the failure to define and to operationalize well these concepts.
A second problem rests in the absence of sufficient descrip- tion of the research methodology. Although a description of the newspaper content analysis appears in footnotes, important details remain unclear. Were editorials and letters to the editor included? How about articles describing what judicial and district attorney candidates' said in campaign appearances? Were the campaign ads of district attorney candidates analyzed? Further, nowhere are we told how many people in what positions were interviewed, nor what the interview schedule consisted of.
A related problem stems from some weaknesses in the research design. Because a major research question involved the impact the politicization of street crime might have had on judges, prosecutors, and other key participants, explicit questions about their perceptions should have been asked and the answers ana- lyzed. Though at one point Scheingold cites research on the role television plays in shaping public attitudes, we learn virtually nothing about the content of local television coverage of crime. Even impressionistic descriptions of how local TV news broadcasts cover crime would have been helpful. Including the producers of these shows (and the publisher and editor of the local newspaper) in the list of persons interviewed would have been even better. Measures of policy shifts in the police department's assignment of personnel, perhaps available from internal documents or budgets, are not attempted.
One of the strengths of the study is its examination of changes over time. However, most of the information analyzed only goes up to 1978. Important questions about what happened subsequently (to give one example, the fate of the police department's efforts at community policing during the Reagan era) are
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not answered. Even some impressionistic descriptions of what happened after 1978 or 1980 in a book copyrighted in 1991 would have added to the richness of the book's insights, especially given the continued emphasis on crime by national politicians in the 1980s.
The book cites a rich variety of prior research. Nonethe- less, it does not utilize concepts from this research that would have added to the power and credibility of the empirical analy- sis. It looks at changes in sentencing policy, but does not draw upon the notion of "going rates." In the first section of chapter 4, it assumes that prosecutors determined sentences; in the latter part of the same chapter, it assumes that judges determined them. It explicitly rejects looking at organizational characteristics of the principal sponsoring organizations. Its focus on the divergence between national and local politicians leaves almost totally ignored the role of state government. The legal structure of sentencing, the definitions of crimes and the penalties associated with them, and the capacity of the prison system, all important in shaping outcomes, depend on decisions made at the state level. The failure to look at state level politics and policies and how the politics of street crime affect them constitutes a major conceptual weakness.
Problems also exist in the analysis of the data. Differenc- es among judges' sentences could not be examined. The analysis of differences in prosecutors' policies looks at the percentage distribution of various sexual assault charges, but fails to inquire into why the total number of prosecutions for one was 281 and for the other 785. In general, the analysis and interpreta- tion of the quantitative data and (usually) the qualitative data lack the sophistication and substance of the discussions of the broader issues examined in the beginning and concluding chapters.
Scheingold argues that the local criminal justice system was largely insulated from local politics; yet he presents counter evidence that renders this conclusion suspect. In fact, his final conclusions are not clear to me regarding the degree to which local politics and opinion shaped policy in the criminal justice system. I also am confused about the extent to which he qualifies his generalizations based on the results of his re- search in Cedar City. One the one hand, he recognizes that it is "hardly 'typical.'" Its black population was only about 10%; its crime problem not especially pressing; its political culture emphasized low conflict and civility; its newspaper encouraged low-key campaigns and criticized incendiary rhetoric. He recog- nizes street crime achieved greater salience in Indianapolis, Newark, and Philadelphia and intruded into politics less than in Boston or Minneapolis (p. 70). Nevertheless, he asserts the appropriateness of generalizing more broadly, as when he states that "both the empirical record and the logic of politicization suggest that Cedar City experiences reveal important general- izations about the politicization of street crime in the United States," and goes on to conclude that "street crime was not a particularly promising target of opportunity for local political entrepreneurs." (p.66)
Despite the many serious problems with the conceptualization and implementation of the empirical portion of the research reported in this book, it makes a useful contribution to our general understanding
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of the politics of crime in America. Empirically researching this issue is devilishly difficult. Scheingold has made a pioneering start. To the extent he has stumbled, the book provides useful lessons for others who have the good sense and the courage to tackle such a challenging and important topic.