Faculty Publications - Why Do Criminals Obey the Law?

December 17, 2012

Professor Tracey Meares recently contributed to an article appearing in the Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology which asks the question: Why do criminals obey the law? Although a good deal of research suggests that the average citizen will obey the laws of a legal system considered fair and enforced by legal actors perceived as legitimate, there is a dearth of similar knowledge about why populations likely to commit serious violent crime obey the law.

To help answer this question, the authors rely on a survey of active offenders called the Chicago Gun Project (CGP). The CGP was designed to understand how offenders' social networks influence their perceptions of law and subsequent law-breaking behavior. They found that offenders are more likely to obey the law when they believe in (a) the substance of the law, and (b) the legitimacy of legal actors, especially police. Further, they found that not all criminals are alike in their opinions of the law. Gang members with social networks saturated with criminal associates are significantly less likely to view the law and its agents as legitimate forms of authority. Conversely, individuals (including gang members) with less saturated networks tend to have more positive opinions of the law.

Further Reading:

Andrew V. Papachristos, Tracey Meares & Jeffrey Fagan, Attention Felons: Evaluating Project Safe Neighborhoods in Chicago, 4 J. Empirical Legal Stud. 223 (2007).

Peter V. Marsen, Core Discussion Networks of Americans, 52 Am. Soc. Rev. 122 (1987).

Tom R. Tyler, Procedural Justice, Legitimacy, and the Effective Rule of Law, 30 Crime & Just. 283 (2003).

Tom R. Tyler  & Yuen J. Huo, Trust in the Law (2002).

Tom R. Tyler, Why People Obey the Law (1990).


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