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Off the Leash: Social Control, Leisure and the Criminal Event

Contemporary research has determined that a single offence is the product of several factors, all which must be taken into account to attain a thorough grasp on how and why the offence occurs. For instance, the assumption that crime is caused by poverty should consider the race and gender of the impoverished sample; the education and employment status of the sample; the neighbourhoods and surroundings and people with which the sample interacts. In light of this complex backcloth, or collection of elements that may influence crime, Sacco and Kennedy (p. 35) approach crime as “social events,” involving offenders, victims, bystanders and witnesses, the police, and other participants in the criminal justice system. This perspective adds yet another dimension to criminological analysis, the intricate construct of social controls that govern humans and the consequences of relaxing those social controls. Of the three social domains among which people divide their time, the domain of leisure attracts the most scrutiny because it is this domain which relinquishes the hold of social control on human behaviour. In the pursuit of understanding the link between backloths and behaviours, researchers rely heavily on observations of routine activities and lifestyles. Criminologists realize that illegal activity arises out of every day, legitimate transactions (Messner) and that human behaviour, in general, is highly patterned. Social structure produces the convergence of time, target and location, hence allowing illegal activities to feed upon the legal activities of everyday life. (Cohen and Felson)

The criminal event itself is a transactional occurrence between offenders and victims. A teenager walking to the bus stop sees a younger boy riding a bike. Seeing that the child’s parents are not around, he pushes the child off the bike and runs off with it. In another scenario, a younger sibling grows up watching and hearing about his brothers stealing cars. When he is deemed old enough, he joins the gang of thieves, as a son might join a family business. Whether criminal acts are impulsive and opportunistic, or premeditated and practiced, routine activities theory indicates an interactive pattern requiring a motivated offender, a suitable target, and the absence of a capable guardian. (Messner, Study Guide Unit 6, S&K p.185) Routine activities theory again casts the spotlight on leisure activities because the “permissive environs” (Study Guide Unit 9) of certain leisure settings enhance the opportunities for offenders and victims to cross paths. In a nightclub, as opposed to a church, date rape is much easier to perpetrate because people let down their guard, leave drinks open to be tampered with and often stray beyond their comfort zone while under the influence of drugs and alcohol.

Routine activities theory deciphers the paradox of why crime rates rise even when social and economic conditions are favourable. The improvement in the standard of living means that people acquire more property and travel more. This creates more opportunities for motivated offenders to take advantage of suitable targets and the absence of guardianship. Cohen and Felson investigate the crime rate. Trends in the United States 1947-1974 as a by-product of changes in labour force participation and single-adult households. This discussion provides insight in how a shift in routine activities can positively affect the opportunity for crime. Ironically, urban violent crime rates increased substantially during the past decade although conditions have promoted the opposite. The article suggests that structural changes in routine activity patterns can influence crime rates by affecting the convergence in space and time of offenders and victims. Cohen and Felson divide community structure into three temporal components: rhythm or the regular pace with which events occur, as with the rhythm of travel activity; tempo, or the number of events per unit of time, such as the number of criminal violations per day on a given street; and timing, or the coordination among different activities which are more or less interdependent, such as the coordination of an offender's rhythms with those of a victim. The changing pace of activities exposes businesses as well to greater relative risk of attack, due to the dispersion of goods among many more households, while concentrating goods in business establishments. Retail establishments with heavy volume and few employees to guard it probably is exposed to major increments in risk of illegal removal than is most other business property. Cohen and Felson believe that through consideration of how trends and fluctuations in social conditions affect the frequency of this convergence of criminogenic circumstances, an explanation of temporal trends in crime rates can be constructed. )Cohen & Felson)

People enjoy different leisure activities depending on their gender, age and social status, which make lifestyle exposure theory an important tool in criminal investigation. Opportunities for offending present themselves more readily to some individuals than to others. the lifestyles of individuals and groups follow certain patterns (S&K, p. 182), in terms of where they go, when they go there, who they go with (or who they meet there), and what they do when they get there. Individuals interact in time and space with other individuals who share a similar lifestyle Teenagers and young adults are more likely to frequent bars, nightclubs and raves, where victimization is more common given the leniency of formal social controls. Older adults frequent restaurants and organized programs which maintain a high degree of social order and, therefore, are less open to crime. Lifestyle exposure theory examines the patterned ways in which people with certain demographic characteristics distribute their time and energies across a range of activities, and the relationship of these patterned ways to the risk of victimization by motivated offenders. For this reason, teenagers and the places where they gather may attract the attention of law enforcement quicker than a neighbourhood of retirement homes. Lifestyle exposure or routine activities theories focus on how spatial and temporal variations in crime are related to variations in the opportunities to commit crime. (S &K, p. 182) This paper employs these theories, as well as the concept of social controls, in an exploration of the relationship between leisure activities and crime.

The eight propositions of lifestyle exposure theory (Study Guide Unit 6) underline the connection between social control and lifestyles and clarify how leisure activities can be construed as corrupting. The propositions lean towards offending as a choice and not a flaw. These propositions note the higher vulnerability of risk incurred from time spent in public places as well as the fact that lifestyle choices influence the likelihood of time in public places. People interact with other people who share similar lifestyles. The chances are higher of being victimized by someone who has the same demographic profile, in terms of age, gender, social class, and ethnic background. Lifestyle choices influence the amount of time spent with non-family members (or capable guardians.) The chances of becoming a victim of crime increase with the amount of time spent with non-family members. Lifestyle choices influence your ability to isolate yourself from offenders. In short, variations in lifestyle can influence how convenient and easy it is to victimize. (Study Guide, Unit 6) Supporting evidence of these patterns exist in the fact that rates of personal victimization are relatively high for young minority males because these individuals tend to associate with other young minority males and because they tend to frequent places where offending often occurs. (S&K, p.184) Included in lifestyle choices are leisure choices. Leisure choices are made to escape social control. Many types of offending are forms of leisure: illegal drug use as "recreational drug use"; stealing a car for fun as "joyriding". (p.260)

Notably, even “leisure” is a multi-layered term. Sacco and Kennedy (p. 260) describe leisure as the "spare time" or "free time" that is left over after paid work and other obligations have been taken care of. (p. 261) Since leisure activities are freely chosen, leisure activities encompass a wide range of activities, from sleeping to working out, to partying. There is leisure that occurs within the home, like gardening, and leisure activities outside of the home, like going to the gym. Not surprisingly, as confirmed by the aforementioned propositions, people involved in leisure outside of the home are more at risk of victimization than those who spend their free time at home. Involvement outside the home increases interaction with other people, which means more offenders meet more victims. Specific types of leisure activities motivate offenders toward offending or free them from constraints against offending. (p. 261) In his study on leisure and crime, Stephen Messner explores the difference in impact of household leisure activities and non-household leisure activities and finds that household leisure activities have a negative effect on crime rates, in other words, crime rates drop when people are engaged inside the home, whereas leisure outside the home has a positive effect on crime rates.

Messner uses a routine activities approach for his research, contending that routine activities reflect the structure of opportunities for criminal victimization. Routine activities theory supports Messner’s conclusions since activities outside the home bring offenders and victims together. Messner uses television viewing as his household activity variable and commercial entertainment establishments as the non-household activity. The goal of the study is to look at the interconnections between the location of these activi­ties and the available opportunities for criminal victimizations. Data for the study is based on data for the 124 largest Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas (SMSAs) during the time period around 1980. Information has also been collected on a series of sociodemographic characteristics to serve as statistical controls: percent below the poverty line, percent black, total population, males per 100 females, percent ages 18-24 and South, a dummy variable. The specific measure of television viewing is based on data from the A. C. Nielsen Company: The first equation includes only the control vari­ables; the second also includes the indicators of non-household and house­hold activities in addition to the controls. Preliminary findings further refine the initial hypothesis, Messner proposes that the widespread dispersal of routine leisure ac­tivities away from households is conducive to high rates of criminal vic­timizations and, second, that the widespread concentration of activities around households tends to reduce observed levels of crime. (Messner)

One cannot expect to refer to television as a positive form of leisure without being reminded that television has been criticized almost from its inception as a negative influence on those who watch it. Since the emergence of modern mass culture, every major form of youth leisure activity has been characterized by interest groups as a corrupter of young people. (p. 262) Messner (Messner) points out that most research indicates that violent television programs can arouse antagonistic feelings and may have at least short-term effects on aggressive behaviour but that the premise that individual reactions to television can be trans­lated directly into aggregate patterns that describe entire communities is questionable. Sacco and Kennedy (p.262) reiterate that the effects of television violence on criminal motivation are probably limited by several factors: violent crimes account for only a small proportion of total crime; The effects of television violence on criminal motivation are probably limited by several factors: violent crimes account for only a small proportion of total crime; any effects produced by media exposure must be understood in the context of many other factors that encourage or restrain offending and exposure to violent content in laboratory settings triggers violent arousal, but the same effects are not necessarily produced by media exposure in the real world.

Sacco and Kennedy also frame the discussion of television’s impact on crime in light of social control theory. They suggest that research supports the view that television violence may influence the behaviour of a pool of at-risk individuals who may be especially susceptible to its effects. (p. 263) Messner, too, mentions literature on the sociology of leisure that links cultural activi­ties in a very general way with forms of social disorganization. Messner identifies three broad perspectives on the subject: cultural and leisure activities are positive expressions of societal integration; leisure provides an outlet for societal discontent; and leisure promotes disorganization, including criminality, at the societal level. The general theory of crime (p. 189) describes criminal activity as appealing to people who are impulsive, short-sighted, physical, risk-taking, nonverbal, and, most importantly, low in self-control. By this definition, television can be interpreted as a direct cause of crime. In contrast, routine activities theory casts television as a “safe” form of leisure (Messner) because the activity discourages interaction with others, thus limiting contact between offenders and victims.

Humans are innately social, almost dependent on contact with others in order to progress. Hirschi (p.152) discusses this connection as the social bond or the strength and quality of the relationships that link potential offenders to conformist others and that serve to insulate them from criminal influences. People gravitate towards leisure because of the relaxation of formal controls that leisure implies. For offenders, this lack of social pressure makes delinquency an easier decision. This loosening of the bond is at once motivation and absence of guardianship. Leisure settings become ideal, therefore, for the search for suitable targets. Leisure nurtures the criminal event on several levels: social, behavioural and theoretical.

(c) Kristy Kassie, November 25, 2007

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