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Criminology Active Offender Research
by
Scott Jacques

Introduction

Before criminology became obsessed with quantitative research, many of the field’s insights about crime came from offenders’ “own stories,” although this work typically used accounts from incarcerated or former offenders. In this way, active offender research was born out of criminology’s infancy. The criminological lexicon holds that active offender research involves (1) in-depth communication and observations, especially of the qualitative kind, (2) with un-incarcerated persons (3) who have not—in their own minds—terminated their criminal career. As it is known today, the term “active offender research” is perhaps too broad, as persons may continue to offend even within institutional walls; the difference between “active” and “inactive” depends on temporal narrowness (e.g., no person is offending in every moment); and self-administered surveys may sample active offenders as they collect information from current lawbreakers. Putting aside these definitional discrepancies, this body of work—as defined above—is unique and important. Compared to institutionalized criminals, active ones are more aware of current trends in crime and social control, are better able to remember why and how they offend, are more willing to speak the whole truth, and are more likely to represent populations not subjected to discriminatory law enforcement. For these reasons and others it is important to conduct research with active offenders. This bibliography does not organize or summarize all of it but instead focuses on method and kinds of crimes and offenders.

Introductory Works

Two classics of offender-based research are The Jack-Roller (Shaw 1966) and The Professional Thief (Sutherland 1937); the former principally focuses on the life-course of a criminal whereas the latter keys in on criminal culture. Cromwell 2010 is a useful book for those who wish to orient themselves or students to the present state of active offender research. This article directs readers toward works on this method and, in turn, findings from this type of research on burglars, robbers, retaliators, gang members, drug markets, and how offenders prevent law enforcement. This article does not examine every single crime type, such as fraud (see, e.g., Blumberg 1989, a study of retail market defrauders); prostitution (see, e.g., ethnographies of Murphy and Venkatesh 2006 and those contained in the edited volume Ratner 1993); or smuggling, including the contribution of Zhang 2008. However, for each crime type that is discussed, note that all of the work is based on active offender research as defined above.

  • Blumberg, Paul. 1989. The predatory society: Deception in the American marketplace. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    Based on descriptions provided by students employed in the retail sector at businesses like grocery and clothing stores, Blumberg explores fraud in the marketplace. Special focus is given to the techniques and considerations of defrauding customers.

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  • Cromwell, Paul, ed. 2010. In their own words: Criminals on crime. 5th ed. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    This edited volume neatly organizes a wealth of offender-based studies, although not all of them are of the active offender sort. Topics include criminal lifestyles and decision making and crimes of theft, violence, entrepreneurship, and gang involvement.

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  • Murphy, Alexandra K., and Sudhir A. Venkatesh. 2006. Vice careers: The changing contours of sex work in New York City. Qualitative Sociology 29:129–154.

    DOI: 10.1007/s11133-006-9012-2Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Based on in-depth fieldwork in New York City with sex workers, the authors examine the effect of prostitutes moving indoors on their conception of this illegal labor and the length of their criminal careers.

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  • Ratner, Mitchell S., ed. 1993. Crack pipe as pimp: An ethnographic investigation of sex-for-crack exchanges. New York: Lexington Books.

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    Not for the faint of heart, this edited volume includes a series of ethnographic studies on prostitution’s relationship with crack-cocaine. Chapters come from work done in Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Miami, New York City, Newark, and San Francisco.

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  • Shaw, Clifford R. 1966. The jack-roller: A delinquent boy’s own story. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    This autobiography strings together elements of social disorganization, strain, and social bonds to show the influences on the onset and evolution of one delinquent’s criminal career. Noteworthy is a methodological chapter that outlines the importance of qualitative work with offenders for developing criminological understanding.

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  • Sutherland, Edwin Hardin. 1937. The professional thief. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    An offender known as “Chic Conwell” describes his life as a criminal. He provides insights into crime that only criminals know, such as how they go about learning and executing their craft, as well as outlining the ethics of offenders.

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  • Zhang, Sheldon X. 2008. Chinese human smuggling organization: Families, social networks, and cultural imperatives. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

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    Fieldwork and interviews with more than one hundred human smugglers are used to explore the causes and consequences of Chinese smuggling. Special attention is paid to the role of networks and culture in organizing this cross-Pacific crime.

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Method

Active offender researchers are often asked, “How do you do it?” More specifically, “How do you find these people?” “Do you pay them?” “Do they tell you the truth?” Respectively, these are inquiries into recruitment, remuneration (i.e., compensation), and data quality—including the amount of information obtained and its validity. The first issue—recruitment—is dealt with in detail by Adler 1990 and Wright, et al. 1992. Dunlap and Johnson 1999 and Jacques and Wright 2008 delve into each part of the research process. General treatments of “how you do it” are provided in the edited volumes Bernasco 2010, Douglas 1972, and Ferrell and Hamm 1998.

  • Adler, Patricia. 1990. Ethnographic research on hidden populations: Penetrating the drug world. NIDA Monograph 98:96–111.

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    Using lessons learned from the author’s research on drug smugglers and dealers, this monograph examines the difficulties of and solutions for gaining data via the use of informants, covert versus obvert identity as a researcher, building trust, and cross-checking data. In addition to the problems associated with access, attention is also given to effect of drugs on data collection, risks, and ethics.

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  • Bernasco, Wim, ed. 2010. Offenders on offending: Learning about crime from criminals. Cullompton, UK: Willan.

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    More so than other edited books, this is valuable due to its inclusion of research from countries beyond America. Chapters are split topically, including debates on the strengths and limitations of both prison-based and “free world” research, how to obtain valid data and determine it is such, and the effect of social life on fieldwork.

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  • Douglas, Jack D., ed. 1972. Research on deviance. New York: Random House.

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    This edited collection examines research with deviants in general, but the chapters have a general relevance for studies of criminal behavior. Areas explored include maintaining relations, struggles associated with participant-observation, and risk.

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  • Dunlap, Eloise, and Bruce D. Johnson. 1999. Gaining access to hidden populations: Strategies for gaining cooperation of drug sellers/dealers and their families in ethnographic research. Drugs and Society 14:127–149.

    DOI: 10.1300/J023v14n01_11Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Based on experiences in a study involving conversations with and observations of active drug dealers, this article outlines (1) researchers’ use of go-betweens for meeting potential participants and, in turn, (2) properly compensating them, showing respect, and building trust in order to obtain information and rapport.

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  • Ferrell, Jeff, and Mark S. Hamm, eds. 1998. Ethnography at the edge: Crime, deviance, and field research. Boston: Northeastern Univ. Press.

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    A number of experienced researchers share insights from their work on the potential costs and benefits of doing work on active offenders. Chapters not only look at studies of different kinds of crime but also consider different kinds of research issues, such as honesty, secrecy, and danger.

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  • Jacques, Scott, and Richard Wright. 2008. Intimacy with outlaws: The role of relational distance in recruiting, paying, and interviewing underworld research participants. Journal of Research in Crime & Delinquency 45:22–38.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022427807309439Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The authors propose a theory of active offender research based on their own and others’ studies on drug dealers. They propose that as researchers, recruiters, and criminals become more intimate, the probability of recruitment increases, the amount of remuneration decreases, and the amount of valid data obtained increases.

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  • Wright, Richard, Scott Decker, Allison Redfern, and Dietrich Smith. 1992. A snowball’s chance in hell: Doing fieldwork with active residential burglars. Journal of Research in Crime & Delinquency 29:148–161.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022427892029002003Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The authors challenge the assumption that field-based research with offenders is impractical by drawing on their experience in research with 105 active burglars. Focus is laid on describing the utility of chain referral (e.g., “snowball” sampling) for locating and recruiting participants.

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Danger

“Isn’t it dangerous?” is an especially common question posed to active offender researchers. They have been threatened, stalked, robbed, and murdered for reasons related to their work. The question for researchers is not so much whether the job is dangerous but, rather, how to minimize the danger. Descriptions of dangerous situations and strategies for how to prevent and handle them are provided in a number of works. Jacobs 1998 tells of Jacobs’s robbery and stalking by a disgruntled participant-turned-recruiter, and how these victimizations might have been avoided. Jacobs 2006 reviews the risks and benefits of research in dangerous contexts. Jacques and Wright 2010 proposes a theory of victimization against researchers by participants, essentially suggesting that it becomes more likely as those parties become less well acquainted. Lee 1995 provides a general overview of dangerous research. Sluka 1990 and Williams, et al. 1992 draw on the authors’ experiences in the field, including the risks they faced and how they went about mitigating the potential for harm.

  • Jacobs, B. A. 1998. Researching crack dealers: Dilemmas and contradictions. In Ethnography at the edge: Crime, deviance, and field research. Edited by Jeff Ferrell and Mark S. Hamm, 160–177. Boston: Northeastern Univ. Press.

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    The author describes a frightening incident in which a former participant-turned-recruiter robbed and stalked him. The experience is drawn on to reveal the importance of properly ending field relations in order to avoid retaliation by subjects.

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  • Jacobs, Bruce. 2006. The case for dangerous fieldwork. In The SAGE handbook of fieldwork. Edited by Dick Hobbs and Richard Wright, 157–168. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

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    After reviewing bad experiences of researchers in the field, the chapter discusses the costs and benefits of dangerous fieldwork and its necessity for obtaining unique kinds of data and insights.

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  • Jacques, Scott, and Richard Wright. 2010. Dangerous intimacy: Toward a theory of violent victimization in active offender research. Journal of Criminal Justice Education 21:503–525.

    DOI: 10.1080/10511253.2010.516567Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The authors propose a theory of victimization in active offender research. They suggest that as researchers, recruiters, and criminals become more intimate, the rate and seriousness of researchers’ victimization by (potential) participants decreases.

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  • Lee, Raymond M. 1995. Dangerous fieldwork. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

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    This is a broad-ranging work that dives deep into several issues associated with dangerous research, including that with active offenders. Issues explored include the various kinds of danger and ways to minimize it while in the field.

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  • Sluka, Jeff A. 1990. Participant observation in violent social contexts. Human Organization 49:114–126.

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    This article reviews prior work on risks associated with dangerous fieldwork and the escalation of such problems in recent time. Then, the author suggests how his conscious use of impression management with research participants in the violent context of Belfast, Northern Ireland, helped to mitigate and contain risk. This is used to provide practical recommendations for how to minimize danger during research.

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  • Williams, Terry, Eloise Dunlap, Bruce D. Johnson, and Ansley Hamid. 1992. Personal safety in dangerous places. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 21.3: 343–374.

    DOI: 10.1177/089124192021003003Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Based on the authors’ research with crack-cocaine sellers, a number of techniques for maintaining personal safety while conducting active offender research are proposed. These include displaying a proper demeanor and using “protectors” who are familiar with the areas or persons being studied.

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Burglars

Burglary involves illegal entry into a building and stealing from it. More so than active offender research on other crimes, the studies of burglary have a relatively long history and quantitative orientation. One of the earliest works with active burglars is Burglars on the Job (Wright and Decker 1994), which provides a qualitative examination of the various stages in committing burglary. This work is supplemented with experimental studies involving active burglars and non-offenders. Wright, et al. 1995 provides insight into criminals’ expertise by testing their ability to detect environmental cues and changes, whereas Decker, et al. 1993a focuses on the effect of risks and rewards, as does Piquero and Rengert 1999. Decker, et al. 1993b and Mullins and Wright 2003 focus attention on gendered effects, including their influence on burglary for both men and women as well as differences and similarities between these two groups.

  • Decker, Scott, Richard Wright, and Robert Logie. 1993a. Perceptual deterrence among active residential burglars. Criminology 31:135–147.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.1993.tb01125.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This experimental study considers the effect of varying levels of anticipated rewards, certainty of punishment, and its severity on the willingness to burgle. Only certainty of punishment and size of profit are found to have a significant effect.

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  • Decker, Scott, Richard Wright, Allison Redfern, and Dietrich Smith. 1993b. A woman’s place is in the home: Females and residential burglary. Justice Quarterly 10:143–162.

    DOI: 10.1080/07418829300091741Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This article focuses on the similarities and differences between male and female burglars and provides a typology of female burglars.

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  • Mullins, Chris, and Richard Wright. 2003. Gender, social networks, and residential burglary. Criminology 41.3: 1601–1628.

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    Based on a comparison of male and female burglars, the authors explore how gender, street life, and social relations shape criminal careers. Feedback effects are also considered.

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  • Piquero, Alex, and George F. Rengert. 1999. Studying deterrence with active residential burglars. Justice Quarterly 16:451–471.

    DOI: 10.1080/07418829900094211Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The research examines how perceptions of risks and rewards affect the decision to burgle. It finds that both factors matter although the former is more important.

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  • Wright, Richard, and Scott Decker. 1994. Burglars on the job: Streetlife and residential break-ins. Boston: Northeastern Univ. Press.

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    This book explores the factors influencing the decision to commit burglary, choosing and entering the target, stealing wealth from it, and then getting rid of the stolen goods. Effects of rational choice, emotions, culture, and lifestyle are discussed.

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  • Wright, Richard, Robert Logie, and Scott Decker. 1995. Criminal expertise and offender decision-making: An experimental study of the target selection process in residential burglary. Journal of Research in Crime & Delinquency 32:39–53.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022427895032001002Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An experimental design is used to examine whether active offenders differ from non-offenders in perceptions of environmental cues relevant to expertise in burglary. The study finds the active burglars were better able to detect environmental shifts, suggesting they do in fact hold expertise in this particular crime as compared to non-offenders.

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Robbers

Robbery is taking wealth through the threat or use of violence. Wright and Decker 1997, an ethnography of armed robbers, proposes a theory of why and how they do it. This work is built on by Jacobs and Wright 1999, which provides special attention to the process of moving from unmotivated to motivated robbery. Jacobs and Wright 2008 focuses attention on retaliatory robberies and suggests a typology of it. Miller 1998 considers how gender affects motivation and execution of the crime. Jacobs 2010 provides a spin on the notion of motivated robbers by examining how serendipitous opportunities may provide the impetus to commit crime. St. Jean 2007 considers the importance of disorder and collective efficacy for committing robbery.

  • Jacobs, Bruce. 2010. Serendipity in robbery target selection. British Journal of Criminology 50:514–529.

    DOI: 10.1093/bjc/azq002Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This study considers the skill of finding value in unexpected situations, or what is called “serendipity,” for committing robbery. The relevance of pure versus manufactured serendipity for perception, need, opportunity, and rational choice is considered.

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  • Jacobs, Bruce, and Richard Wright. 1999. Stick-up, street-culture, and offender motivation. Criminology 37:149–173.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.1999.tb00482.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This article delineates the factors spurring the motivation to commit a robbery. The authors conclude that a need for fast cash combined with participation in street life are important foreground influences mediating the effect of traditional background variables.

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  • Jacobs, Bruce, and Richard Wright. 2008. Moralistic street robbery. Crime & Delinquency 54:511–531.

    DOI: 10.1177/0011128707307220Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The authors focus their attention on robberies committed as retaliation. They propose a typology of such crimes, suggesting they emerge out of market-related, status-based, or personalistic conflicts.

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  • Miller, Jody. 1998. Up it up: Gender and the accomplishment of street robbery. Criminology 36.1: 37–66.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.1998.tb01239.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Using data gathered from female and male robbers, the author looks at the criminals’ accounts of their crimes, including motivation and the role of gender in affecting how the crime is committed. Although motivation between sexes is similar, their physical differences lead them to carry out the offense in different ways.

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  • St. Jean, Peter K. B. 2007. “I want it, I see it, I take it”: The robbery hotspots. In Pockets of crime: Broken windows, collective efficacy, and the criminal point of view. By Peter K. B. St. Jean, 149–165. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    With the aim of explaining the intervening mechanism between high crime rates and disorder and collective efficacy, the author considers insights from conversations with not only robbers but also police officers and community members. It is found collective efficacy has the largest deterrent effect and that social disorder has an influence, whereas the effect of physical disorder is largely nonexistent.

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  • Wright, Richard, and Scott Decker. 1997. Armed robbers in action: Stickups and street culture. Boston: Northeastern Univ. Press.

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    This study of active robbers aims to explain their motivations and methods of crime commission. The role of rational choice, street culture, and phenomenology are noted as holding special importance.

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Retaliators

Retaliation is about getting even and addressing grievances. It is crime controlling crime, so to speak, for those offenders who cannot go to the police when they are victimized by other offenders in the process of engaging in illegal activities. It sometimes comes in the form of burglary, auto theft, or robbery; alternatively, it may also be absent theft and involve only violence, vandalism, or harassment. Active offender research on retaliation has concerned itself with conceptualizing this crime, as seen in Jacobs and Wright 2006, and theorizing its occurrence. A learning theory is provided by St. Jean 2007. Cultural components are provided in Mullins, et al. 2004, a work on gender, and Topalli 2005 provides reasons and methods of how criminal cultures are neutralized for good behavior. Jacques 2010 provides what is best described as a necessary conditions theory of retaliation that makes use of the opportunity perspective. A sibling of opportunity theory is the rational choice perspective, which is used by Jacobs and Wright 2010 to understand retaliation and its rippling effects in communities.

  • Jacobs, Bruce A., and Richard Wright. 2006. Street justice: Retaliation in the criminal underworld. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    The authors propose a typology of retaliation that utilizes temporal, motivational, and relational divisions. Reflexive retaliation is an immediate response, whereas calculated retaliation involves a planned delay; deferred retaliation is where the delay is not desired; sneaky retaliation lacks violence; and imperfect retaliation punishes not the victimizer but rather someone else.

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  • Jacobs, Bruce, and Richard Wright. 2010. Bounded rationality, retaliation, and the spread of urban violence. Journal of Interpersonal Violence 25:1739–1766.

    DOI: 10.1177/0886260509354502Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Explores the ways bounded rationality—specifically anger, uncertainty, and time pressure—affect the execution of vigilantism, including the severity of the act and the person retaliated against. Attention is paid to the way bounded rationality leads victims to take justice out on persons other than victimizers.

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  • Jacques, Scott. 2010. The necessary conditions for retaliation: Toward a theory of non-violent and violent forms in drug markets. Justice Quarterly 27:186–205.

    DOI: 10.1080/07418820902873860Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Recognizing that not all retaliation is violent, the author provides a theory of aggressive and non-aggressive types. A good starting point is determining the necessary conditions, or minimal elements, for different kinds of retaliation to occur because without those conditions each type is impossible. Fraud and violence, for example, require contact between disputants whereas unseen theft (e.g., burglary) requires the absence of contact.

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  • Mullins, Chris, Richard Wright, and Bruce Jacobs. 2004. Gender, streetlife, and criminal retaliation. Criminology 42:911–940.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.2004.tb00540.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Provides a unique study on how gender shapes retaliation by men and women against persons of the same and opposite sex. Findings include that gender and sex influence perceptions of disrespect as well as the rate and seriousness of reprisal.

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  • St. Jean, Peter K. B. 2007. “That’s the way we grew up”: The battery hotspots. In Pockets of crime: Broken windows, collective efficacy, and the criminal point of view. By Peter K. B. St. Jean, 166–194. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    This chapter focuses on retaliatory violence between intimate partners, acquaintances, and criminals. Empirical light is placed on the theoretical and actual effects of social disorder, collective efficacy, and micro-level bridges between them and retaliation: namely, the types of persons involved and what they do.

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  • Topalli, Volkan. 2005. When being good is bad: An expansion of neutralization theory. Criminology 43:797–836.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.0011-1348.2005.00024.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Shows that persons with a criminal culture do not find it necessary to justify their retaliation, but they do seek reasons for not seeking vengeance or requesting government intervention. Ironically, conventional cultures may be neutralized via the same techniques, such as the denial of injury or of a victim.

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Gang Members

What a gang “is” is a debated topic. In the criminological literature, at least, gangs are defined as a collection of individuals who perceive themselves as a group and co-offend. One of the earliest and most influential projects on active gang members is Whyte 1981, a study of one such group in Boston. Four other in-depth ethnographies—Decker and Van Winkle 1996, Jankowski 1991, Padilla 1992, and Venkatesh 2008—provide detailed descriptions of motivations behind and activities of American gangs, especially as they relate to drug dealing and violence. Miller 1998, Miller 2001, and Miller and Decker 2001 add to the literature by explicitly considering how gender shapes gang life, including violent offending and victimization.

  • Decker, Scott, and Barrick Van Winkle. 1996. Life in the gang: Family, friends, and violence. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    A wide and yet deep analysis of gangs, this book explores several distinct but interrelated issues. These include membership, structure, activities—including crime—and the role of family and school.

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  • Jankowski, Martín Sánchez. 1991. Islands in the street: Gangs and American urban society. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    This book considers the forces behind joining a gang, their organization, use of violence and involvement in drug dealing, and their relationship to the outside world—the government, the community, and the media.

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  • Miller, Jody. 1998. Gender and victimization risk among young women in gangs. Journal of Research in Crime & Delinquency 35:429–453.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022427898035004004Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A well-known irony of committing crime is it heightens the risk of being victimized. This article describes the way gender affects and interacts with gang involvement, status within the gang, and victimization.

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  • Miller, Jody. 2001. One of the guys: Girls, gangs, and gender. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    This ethnography takes an expansive view of the ways in which gender influences initial and continued participation in gangs, including committing crime.

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  • Miller, Jody, and Scott Decker. 2001. Young women and gang violence: Gender, street offending, and violent victimization in gangs. Justice Quarterly 18:115–140.

    DOI: 10.1080/07418820100094841Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Violent offending and victimization provide the context for this article. The ways violence is affected by gender and rank are considered in detail.

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  • Padilla, Felix M. 1992. The gang as an American enterprise. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press.

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    This book emphasizes the value of gangs for their members and, thus, the reasons they are formed and persist. Such factors include access to emotional support, respect, wealth, and upward mobility.

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  • Venkatesh, Sudhir A. 2008. Gang leader for a day: A rogue sociologist takes to the streets. New York: Penguin.

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    Firsthand accounts of gang life are used to provide vivid descriptions of the day-to-day world of gang members, including drug dealing, violent offending and victimization, and managing relations with community members.

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  • Whyte, William Foote. 1981. Street corner society: The social structure of an Italian slum. 3d ed. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    One of the genuine classics of active offender research, the author’s in-depth study of gang members in a Boston slum shows how poor, high-crime areas are not necessarily socially disorganized. Particular attention is paid to the connections between gangs, racketeering, and politics.

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Drug Markets

Active offender research on drug market participants—meaning manufacturers/growers, smugglers, dealers, or users of illicit mind- and body-altering substances—is probably more common than any other topic. The frequency of such studies is likely the outcome of the high prevalence of such offenders. It is well known that disadvantaged communities in urban America are often the center of illicit drug trade and use, but it cannot be denied that persons of all classes and from all areas are involved in drugs. No matter where dealing occurs and who does it, it appears to come with substantial risk of being victimized and the perceived need to retaliate. The sections below list some—but certainly not all—of the key studies on dealing, using, and drug market–related crime.

Dealers in Urban Disadvantaged American Communities

Relatively speaking, the social circumstances that characterize urban disadvantaged America—including poverty and joblessness—are ripe for producing drug dealers. Several rich ethnographies of such persons help to explain the reasons they sell drugs, their social organization, and relations with adversaries such as police, victimizers, and rival dealers. From New York City, we have Bourgois 2003, Maher 1997, and Williams 1989. Studies from Midwestern cities are Jacobs 1999 and Mieczkowski 1986. Perhaps the most methodologically innovative study in this arena is Levitt and Venkatesh 2000, which uses mixed methods to understand the motives and consequences of drug dealing.

  • Bourgois, Philippe. 2003. In search of respect: Selling crack in El Barrio. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    Based on detailed observations of and conversations with a group of key informants, this work explores social marginalization, drug dealing, and urban life.

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  • Jacobs, Bruce. 1999. Dealing crack: The social world of streetcorner selling. Boston: Northeastern Univ. Press.

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    Research employing observations and interviews with active crack-cocaine dealers is drawn on to reveal their motivations, social organization, involvement in predation as victims and offenders, and interactions with police.

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  • Levitt, Steven D., and Sudhir A. Venkatesh. 2000. An economic analysis of a drug-selling gang’s finances. Quarterly Journal of Economics 115:755–789.

    DOI: 10.1162/003355300554908Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This mixed-method study uses financial data from a drug-selling gang to explore their business, including salary and profits. Special attention is paid to the effect of gang wars on prices.

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  • Maher, Lisa. 1997. Sexed work: Gender, race, and resistance in a Brooklyn drug market. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    The aim of this piece is to examine the economic lives of female drug users in a severely impoverished area. Included in this inquiry are the ways in which gender shapes the opportunities for women to enter and participate in drug dealing.

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  • Mieczkowski, Thomas. 1986. Geeking up and throwing down: Heroin street life in Detroit. Criminology 24:645–666.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.1986.tb01506.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This study uses ethnographic methods to report the behavior of fifteen heroin dealers. One interesting finding is that these dealers are not motivated by the need to fund their own habit.

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  • Williams, Terry. 1989. The cocaine kids: The inside story of a teenage drug ring. New York: Addison-Wesley.

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    The author spent countless hours with a group of cocaine dealers in order to gain understanding of their lives. This novel-like book provides information on the individuals’ personalities, connections, neighborhood, and how these factors influence their illicit activities and lifestyle.

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Dealers from Everywhere Else

The stereotypical image of a drug dealer is often represented by a lower-class person from urban America. Yet drug dealers also come from upper or middle classes of America and operate in rural or suburban areas of the United States or in other countries altogether. Adler 1993, an ethnography of persons involved in the upper echelons of the drug world, demonstrates that it often involves persons of considerable wealth. Three works on persons largely operating at the retail level are Carey 1968, Jacques and Wright 2010, and Mohamed and Fritsvold 2010, which build their arguments using information collected from school-age dealers of middle- or upper-class backgrounds. Weisheit 1991 studies rural marijuana growers and shows that this activity is not solely motivated by economics. Research on Australian dealers is provided by Denton 2001 and Coomber and Maher 2006, whereas Sandberg and Pedersen 2009 looks at the situation in Norway.

  • Adler, Patricia. 1993. Wheeling and dealing: An ethnography of an upper-level drug dealing and smuggling community. 2d ed. New York: Colombia Univ. Press.

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    This study provides rich descriptions and insights into drug smuggling and upper-level dealing in California. After discussing the method, the author details elements of social organization in this world and dealers’/smugglers’ lifestyles and criminal careers.

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  • Carey, James T. 1968. The college drug scene. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

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    One of the earliest ethnographies of active drug dealers on and around a college campus, this book examines each level of the dealing hierarchy—low, middle, and high—and their relationship to each other, students, and drug consumption.

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  • Coomber, Ross, and Lisa Maher. 2006. Street-level drug market activity in Sydney’s primary heroin markets: Organization, adulteration practices, pricing, marketing, and violence. Journal of Drug Issues 36:719–754.

    DOI: 10.1177/002204260603600310Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This research uses data from interviews with heroin dealers in Sydney, Australia. It examines their market’s organization, adulteration of drugs, and the rate of violence.

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  • Denton, Barbara. 2001. Dealing: Women in the drug economy. Sydney: Univ. of New South Wales Press.

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    The author uses conversations and observations of female dealers recently released from prison to shed empirical and theoretical light on their reentry into the free world and return to illicit entrepreneurship.

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  • Jacques, Scott, and Richard Wright. 2010. A sociological theory of drug sales, gifts, and frauds. Crime & Delinquency.

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    Drawing on qualitative data from lower-class urban dealers and middle-class suburban dealers, this paper suggests a sociological theory of drug transfer: that higher status customers and those closer in social distance to dealers pay a lower cost for drugs. Available online by subscription.

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  • Mohamed, A. Rakif, and Erik D. Fritsvold. 2010. Dorm room dealers: Drugs and the privileges of race and class. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

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    Relying on fieldwork with college drug dealers of middle- and upper-class upbringing, this research focuses on their criminal motivations and the reasons why they largely escape attention from law enforcement.

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  • Sandberg, Sveinung, and Willy Pedersen. 2009. Street capital: Black cannabis dealers in a white welfare state. Bristol, UK: Policy Press.

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    Based on research with cannabis sellers in a rough neighborhood of Oslo, Norway, this book looks at the circumstances influencing street capital and its effect on drug markets and related acts of violence.

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  • Weisheit, Ralph A. 1991. The intangible rewards from crime: The case of domestic marijuana cultivation. Crime & Delinquency 37:506–527.

    DOI: 10.1177/0011128791037004006Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The author’s interviews with rural marijuana growers are used to suggest that the benefits of drug dealing extend beyond finances and into such subjective rewards as the pleasure of growing.

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Dealers’ Victimization and Retaliation

The nature of engaging in a crime, such as drug dealing, is that it increases the chance of being victimized because criminals are unlikely to ask the police for help and predators take advantage of this fact. The knock-on effect of this is that dealers are more likely to engage in vigilantism than the average person. Contreras 2009, Jacobs 2000, and Jacobs, et al. 2000 use data from robbers to explore the motives and methods of robbers who target dealers. Topalli, et al. 2002 examines the benefits of retaliation for dealers who have been wronged. Jacques and Wright 2008 suggests that more can be understood about victimization and retaliation in the drug world by simultaneously researching peaceful drug market behaviors such as toleration and avoidance. These latter two works are based on interviews with active sellers.

  • Contreras, Randol. 2009. “Damn, yo—Who’s that girl?” An ethnographic analysis of masculinity in drug robberies. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 38:465–492.

    DOI: 10.1177/0891241608316645Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This piece shows how masculinity sets a trap for dealers to get robbed. Female robbers will lure a male into a vulnerable position, which is taken advantage of by the female’s male accomplice, who enacts violence.

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  • Jacobs, Bruce. 2000. Robbing drug dealers: Violence beyond the law. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

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    Rather than consider dealers’ violent victimization from their perspective, this book explores the views of the victimizers, i.e., drug dealer robbers. Their experiences are used to understand their motivation and strategies of target selection, enactment, and retaliation management.

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  • Jacobs, Bruce, Volkan Topalli, and Richard Wright. 2000. Managing retaliation: Drug robbery and informal sanction threats. Criminology 38:171–198.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.2000.tb00887.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Although criminologists are well aware of the idea that formal sanctions affect crime commission, less attention has been paid to how a kind of informal control—namely, retaliation—affects offending. The authors fill that gap in the literature by suggesting ways in which drug robbers manage the risk of violent retaliation.

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  • Jacques, Scott, and Richard Wright. 2008. The relevance of peace to studies of drug market violence. Criminology 46:221–253.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.2008.00102.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Building on the concept of systemic violence, this article provides a typology of violent and nonviolent drug market behaviors. It is suggested that the two major behaviors are resource transfer and social control, each of which is an umbrella concept for a number of more narrowly defined behaviors, such as predation, sales, gifts, retaliation, settlement, negotiation, avoidance, and toleration.

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  • Topalli, Volkan, Richard Wright, and Robert Fornango. 2002. Drug dealers, robbery, and retaliation: Vulnerability, deterrence, and the contagion of violence. British Journal of Criminology 42:337–351.

    DOI: 10.1093/bjc/42.2.337Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    With little access to law, victimized criminals are in a precarious position. One way to respond to offenses against them is retaliation. This research explores the deterrent, compensatory, and retributive benefits of vigilantism.

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Drug Users

A person’s drug-using career may come with the consequence of personal harm, which comes in many forms. Waldorf, et al. 1991 focuses on onset, continuation, desistance, and drug-related crime among cocaine users. Grapendaal, et al. 1995 looks at how heroin addiction influences involvement in crime. The research in Perrone 2009 examines how high-status young people avoid getting in trouble with the law. Sifaneck, et al. 2007, an innovative study, sheds light on the dollar-per-gram price of marijuana. Drugs are typically bought with money but may also be bartered for; Copes, et al. 2007, a study of renting cars in exchange for crack-cocaine, explores one such kind of bartered exchange. The edited volume Weppner 1977 is a useful collection for thinking about the problems and prospects of researching active drug users.

  • Copes, Heith, Craig J. Forsyth, and Rod K. Brunson. 2007. Rock rentals: The social organization and interpersonal dynamics of crack-for-cars transactions in Louisiana, USA. British Journal of Criminology 47:885–899.

    DOI: 10.1093/bjc/azm040Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Drug sales do not always involve money; items of wealth or services may be bartered. This paper reveals the processes behind rock rentals—meaning the rental of one’s motor vehicle for crack-cocaine—and implications for auto theft crime rates and law enforcement.

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  • Grapendaal, Martin, Ed Leuw, and Hans Nelen. 1995. A world of opportunities: Lifestyle and economic behavior of heroin addicts in Amsterdam. Albany: State Univ. of New York Press.

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    The authors examine a number of questions relevant to heroin addiction. The main focus revolves around the evolution of individuals’ addiction and its connection to crimes such as theft.

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  • Perrone, Dina. 2009. The high life: Club kids, harm, and drug policy. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

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    This research explores the motivations of educated, young professionals for engaging in drug use at dance clubs. The ways in which they avoid the criminal justice system are considered.

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  • Sifaneck, Stephen J., Geoffrey L. Ream, Bruce D. Johnson, and Eloise Dunlap. 2007. Retail marijuana purchases in designer and commercial markets in New York City: Sales units, weights, and prices per gram. Drug and Alcohol Dependence 90 (Suppl. 1): S40–S51.

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    This study provides detailed descriptive information about the price of marijuana, which ranges from $5 to $50 per gram. The difference in price between commercial and designer marijuana is examined in detail.

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  • Waldorf, Dan, Craig Reinarman, and Sheigla Murphy. 1991. Cocaine changes: The experience of using and quitting. Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press.

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    More than 250 heavy cocaine users were interviewed to gain insights into cocaine use. This book explores topics such as initiation process, reasons it is used, harms from it, and quitting.

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  • Weppner, Robert S., ed. 1977. Street ethnography: Selected studies of crime and deviance in natural settings. Beverly Hills, CA: SAGE.

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    This edited work is one of the earliest volumes on the prospects and problems of conducting active offender research. The chapters largely focus on methodological and ethical issues in this sort of research.

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Preventing Law Enforcement

More so than law enforcement officials, law-abiding citizens, or even incarcerated offenders, active criminals are in a unique position to reveal insights into how they go about preventing law enforcement measures such as reporting to police and investigations or arrests by them. Jacobs 1993, Jacobs 1996, Jacobs and Miller 1998, and Johnson and Natarajan 1995 provide information on the various techniques used by offenders to achieve this end. Jacobs 2010 suggests a theory of why some criminals take more actions than others aimed at not getting in trouble with the law. Rosenfeld, et al. 2003 focuses attention on how snitching affects law enforcement and crime, including retaliation.

  • Jacobs, Bruce. 1993. Undercover deception clues: A case of restrictive deterrence. Criminology 31:281–299.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.1993.tb01131.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This research focuses on the “perceptual shorthands” used by dealers to decide whether a potential buyer is in fact an undercover police officer. One warning sign is trend discontinuity, in which a familiar customer introduces unfamiliar persons or significantly increases the quantities they want to purchase. Another kind of warning is interpersonal illegitimacy, which involves unfamiliar buyers asking for drugs but exhibiting physical and verbal signs suggesting they are undercover police.

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  • Jacobs, Bruce. 1996. Crack dealers’ apprehension avoidance techniques: A case of restrictive deterrence. Justice Quarterly 13:359–381.

    DOI: 10.1080/07418829600093011Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The author considers the broad tactics used by dealers to avoid being detected or apprehended by law enforcement officials. A typology of tactics is proposed consisting of environmental positioning, stashing, and transaction mediation.

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  • Jacobs, Bruce. 2010. Deterrence and deterrability. Criminology 48:417–441.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.2010.00191.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Although the risks of committing crime depend on the celerity, certainty, and severity of punishment, the effect of this variation differs across people. This article suggests that one reason for this is that not all persons are equally deterrable, defined as an individual’s willingness or capacity to calculate the risks of offending.

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  • Jacobs, Bruce, and Jody Miller. 1998. Crack dealing, gender and arrest avoidance. Social Problems 45:550–569.

    DOI: 10.1525/sp.1998.45.4.03x0180xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Based on research with female crack sellers, attention is given to the ways in which such persons prevent their arrest. The role of gender in arrest-avoidance tactics is explored in light of four such techniques: projected self-image, stashing, selling at particular hours, and lifestyle.

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  • Johnson, Bruce D., and Mangai Natarajan. 1995. Strategies to avoid arrest: Crack sellers’ response to intensified policing. American Journal of Police 14.3–4: 49–69.

    DOI: 10.1108/07358549510111947Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This study examines the ways that drug dealers adapt to increased law enforcement. Two main kinds of adaptations—avoidance of police and tactics to counter their tactics—are explored in detail.

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  • Rosenfeld, Richard, Bruce Jacobs, and Richard Wright. 2003. Snitching and the code of the street. British Journal of Criminology 43:291–309.

    DOI: 10.1093/bjc/43.2.291Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    “Snitching,” meaning making a report to police or cooperating with them, is often discouraged in urban, disadvantaged neighborhoods. The authors use data from active offenders to determine the prevalence of snitching, whether some forms are more acceptable than others, the impact of snitching on that person’s criminal identity, and its role in retaliatory violence.

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LAST MODIFIED: 04/24/2012

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195396607-0066

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