Oct 5, 2009

Guns, Legitimacy, and Social Networks

On average, 14,000 guns per year are recovered from the streets of Chicago.
Let's repeat: 14,000.

Some other facts to consider:

  • In New York, the homicide rate is about 9 homicides per 100,000 people. In Chicago, it is roughly 18 homicides per 100,000 people (2008 data).

  • About 80% of Chicago's murders involve an illegal firearm and most are in some way connected to gang-related disputes.
Andrew Papachristos, a professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts and a research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, has begun making sense of these facts by examining social networks and gun offenders' perceptions of legal authority. At a presentation to Harvard Law School today (and in a paper due to be published shortly), Papachristos found the following:

"gun offenders (just like noncriminals) are more likely to comply with the law when they believe in (a) the substance of the law, and (b) the legitimacy of legal actors, especially the police. Moreover, we find that opinions of compliance to the law are not uniformly distributed across the sample population. In other words, not all criminals are alike in their opinions of the law. Gang members -- but especially gang members with social networks saturated with criminal associates -- are significantly less likely to view the law and its agents as a legitimate form of authority. However, those individuals (including gang members) with less saturated criminal networks actually tend to have more positive opinions of the law, albeit these opinions are still overall negative."

What does this mean?

Looking at a sample of 150 gun offenders in 54 Chicago police beats, Papachristos finds that "criminals" obey the law for much the same reasons that law-abiding citizens obey the law: they feel a moral obligation to do so and think that most laws are right, fair, and just. The difference, according to survey data, is about treatment by the police: most gun offenders do not believe that the police treat most people with respect. In fact, Papachristos and his colleagues found that respect for the police is the only predictor of whether gun offenders perceive the law as a legitimate authority. More than deterrence strategies or prosecutorial outcomes, what cops do matters a lot in offenders' perceptions of procedural justice.

Interestingly, gang members are actually more likely to believe in the substance of the law -- Papachristos wisely notes that there is a non-trivial respect for authority among gang members (think of the Sopranos if you need a pop culture reference) -- but their networks have huge influence on their favorable perceptions of the law. The more people in your network who are engaging in criminal behavior, the more you learn from those people about being a criminal. Papachristos' data shows that gang members whose network ties are more than 50% saturated with other criminal actors are more likely to engage in criminal behavior themselves. Additionally, the more you believe in the legitimacy of the law, the less likely you are to carry a gun. There are not very strong effects for social networks in terms of promoting gun carrying, but these effects are strong for specific, non-planned behaviors (like getting into a fight).

The conclusion we can draw here is that government entities seeking to encourage law-obiding behavior among gun offenders would do well to promote their own legitimacy in the eyes of the offenders. Policies targeted toward improving these perceptions (which might involve de-saturating networks of criminal influences or improving the police-community relationship) could have a perceptible impact on gun violence.

So why does this matter for reentry?

One of Papachristos' key conclusions is that successful reentry is really the problem at hand: he notes that two-thirds of the sample participants have prior felony convictions. The City of Chicago and the U.S. Attorney's Office Northern District of Illinois have implemented a Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN) initiative, which is a federally-funded model for reducing neighborhood crime problems. One of the components of this initiative is regular "roundtable meetings," where returning gun offenders sit down with law enforcement officers, successful reentrants, and representatives of community agencies for a restorative justice conversation. After a message from police officers about the surveillance that will be conducted on them ("We are going to get you if you re-offend, and here's how"), ex-gang members share their turnaround stories and service providers are on hand to offer immediate connections to employment, mental health counseling, and housing opportunities. The results from these forums are promising: Project Safe Neighborhoods evaluations indicate that, as the percentage of active offenders in the neighborhood who attend the meeting increases, the neighborhood-level homicide rate decreases. Additionally, forum participants are less likely to re-offend for several varieities of crime when compared to several different control groups.

In the coming week, we'll be sitting down with Professor Papachristos to get a more detailed picture of gun violence in Chicago and the lessons to be learned for anti-gun violence projects in New York City.

What questions do you have for him?
Send them over and we'll do our best to ask!