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Get a Clue! Criminologists Bust TV Myths
So you’re an expert on crime—at least the crime you see on TV. You never miss an episode of CSI, in its many incarnations. You’ve been following Law and Order since the beginning of time. You treat the season opener of The Closer the way most people treat March Madness. But how much do you really know about crime?
While “realistic” crime dramas are all the rage on television—a national obsession that doesn’t seem likely to subside any time soon—did you know that some of the nation’s top experts on crime are right here at the University of Florida? The Department of Criminology, Law and Society is one of the top programs in the country, currently ranked 11th by U.S. News and World Reports.
The lines of research going on in CLAS are as varied as crime itself, but take a quick look at a few of them and a common theme emerges. Much of what the general public believes about crime, including who commits it and why, is just plain wrong.
Take theft, for instance. A crowbar-wielding culprit in a face mask often comes to mind when one thinks of this crime, but Criminology Professor Richard Hollinger will be the first to tell you the sandwich shop employee who slips a couple of packs of lunchmeat into his backpack on the way home is to blame for far more dollars lost.
“Retailers nationwide lose more than $17 billion a year due to employee theft, $10 billion to shoplifting and the rest to vendor fraud and administrative error,” Hollinger said. “None of the property crimes people worry about—such as convenience store theft, bank robberies and household burglary—even come close to these numbers. And compounding the problem is that we all pay for this loss in terms of higher prices.”
For the past 16 years, Hollinger has polled major retail chains across the nation as part of the National Retail Security Survey and the yearly assessment has become the industry’s way of identifying the best practices for preventing loss in stores nationwide. The data shows that store employees and organized shoplifting rings—not rebellious adolescents—are most to blame for retail property loss.
But what about other crimes attributed to teenagers and juvenile crime in general? The prevailing school of thought in society these days is “If you are old enough to do the crime, you are old enough to do the time,” but research by UF criminologists Lonn Lanza-Kaduce, Chuck Frazier and Jodi Lane has proven that trying and punishing children as adults is counterproductive.
“Our research over several years has shown
clearly that these polices have failed,” said Frazier. “In
fact, they have had an effect opposite of what was intended. Juveniles
prosecuted and punished as adults do worse than comparable youth adjudicated
and sanctioned in the juvenile justice system. They re-offend at higher
rates, more quickly, more often and generally by committing more serious
Bias against teens isn’t the only unpleasant stereotype associated with crime in the public eye. Hollywood has featured plot lines pitting whites against blacks in crime dramas since cameras first began rolling. But in real life, interracial crime is actually pretty rare, according to Associate Professor of Criminology and Sociology Karen Parker. In fact, 90 percent of all homicides in the U.S. involve victims and offenders of the same race. In her new book to be published in 2008 by NYU Press—Unequal Crime Decline: Theorizing Race, Urban Inequality and Criminal Violence—Parker takes a look at the role racial inequality plays in effecting homicide rates in American cities.
“What you see in many black neighborhoods is widespread poverty, high rates of unemployment, limited resources, limited access to education and family disruption,” she said. “As a rule, white neighborhoods don’t face those same kinds of conditions. Although fluctuations in white-white violence also correlate to shifts in the labor market, urban blacks are dealing with realities of starker disadvantage, which may go a long way toward explaining the higher rate of black-black homicide.”
You might think fear of execution would prevent just this sort of violence, but Criminology and Sociology Professor Ron Akers—a socially conservative ordained Baptist deacon—no longer supports the death penalty because his research has shown it does not serve as a deterrent to crime.
“I am opposed to the death penalty, but not on philosophical and moral grounds—actually, there are philosophical and moral reasons to support it as well,” said Akers. “I object because of the problems it has always encountered both in terms of fairness and justice and in terms of having any practical effect on homicide in society. I see no way these problems can be resolved in a democratic context in which due process and constitutional rights are given proper observation.”
Does all this talk about crime have you dreaming about the “good old days” when times were much simpler and safer? Then wake up! Jeff Adler, a professor of criminology and history, said when it comes to crime, there’s no time like the present.
“Looking at the long historical record provides a very different frame of reference,” Adler said. “American society was far more violent 30 years ago than today. Florida was, depending on the specific year, 10–15 times more violent during the 19th century. Medieval England—which was socially homogenous and intensely religious, and people respected their elders and venerated tradition—was dramatically more violent than modern America.”
So why is all of this important? Well, in a country where anyone can be called to serve on a jury, public perceptions of crime become a life or death matter on a daily basis. Just ask Criminology Ph.D. student Dave Khey. He is writing a dissertation on how fictional crime shows influence jurors, and said if you expect the same level of forensic razzle dazzle shown on CSI, Crossing Jordan and Bones the next time you are selected to serve on a jury, you will likely be disappointed.
“There are two major camps when it comes to the CSI effect,” said Khey. “One says these shows miseducate jurors and lead them to expect a full forensic work-up for every case, while the other camp believes these programs cause prospective jurors to overestimate the value of scientific evidence and fail to distinguish between junk science and good science.”
Khey is in the process of interviewing former jurors and hopes to prove once and for all whether crime dramas have a real impact on the mindset of jurors and, in turn, the outcome of trials.
“So far in my research, it seems that no matter their exposure all of my respondents are expecting a lot more from investigators, specifically forensic evidence, than what they were given at the trial they served on,” Khey said. “Some individuals are reporting they specifically voted to acquit due to the lack of forensic evidence—and I must stress that these are largely run-of-the-mill trials that do not traditionally offer this type of evidence!”
Not all cases lend themselves to forensic evidence, and even when they do few are lucky enough to have forensic specialists like UF Anthropology Professor Anthony Falsetti—star of the forthcoming Court TV show Positive ID: The Case Files of Dr. Anthony Falsetti premiering in the fall—examining the evidence.
Bottom line: Don’t believe everything you see on TV.