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Why Do Criminals Obey the Law? The Influence of Legitimacy and Social Networks on Active Gun Offenders


Andrew V. Papachristos


Yale University - Department of Sociology

Tracey L. Meares


Yale University - Law School

Jeffrey Fagan


Columbia Law School

January 12, 2009

Yale Law & Economics Research Paper No. 373
Columbia Public Law Research Paper No. 09-199

Abstract:     
Recent research on procedural justice and legitimacy suggests that compliance with the law is best secured not by mere threat of force, but by fostering beliefs in the fairness of the legal systems and in the legitimacy of legal actors. To date, however, this research has been based on general population surveys and more banal types of law violating behavior (such as unpaid parking tickets, excessive noise, etc.). Thus, while we know why normal people obey the law, we do not have similar knowledge as it pertains to the population most likely to commit serious violent crimes. This study fills this void by using a unique survey of active offenders in Chicago called the Chicago Gun Project (CGP). Part of a larger evaluation effort of the Project Safe Neighborhoods program, the CGP posed a series of individual, neighborhood, legitimacy, and social network questions to a sample of 141 offenders in 52 Chicago neighborhoods. The CGP is designed to understand how the perceptions of the law and social networks of offenders influence their understanding of the law and subsequent law violating behavior. Our findings suggest that while criminals as a whole have negative opinions of the law and legal authority, the sample of gun offenders (just like non-criminals) 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 member) with less saturated criminal networks, actually tend to have more positive opinions of the law, albeit these opinions are still overall negative.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 56

Keywords: Procedural Justice, Legitimacy, Social Networks, Project Safe Neighborhoods, Chicago, Gun Violence

JEL Classification: K42, K14

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Date posted: January 20, 2009 ; Last revised: May 7, 2013

Suggested Citation

Papachristos, Andrew V. and Meares, Tracey L. and Fagan, Jeffrey, Why Do Criminals Obey the Law? The Influence of Legitimacy and Social Networks on Active Gun Offenders (January 12, 2009). Yale Law & Economics Research Paper No. 373; Columbia Public Law Research Paper No. 09-199. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1326631

Contact Information

Andrew V. Papachristos (Contact Author)
Yale University - Department of Sociology ( email )
New Haven, CT 06520
United States
HOME PAGE: http://papachristos.org
Tracey Louise Meares
Yale University - Law School ( email )
P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States
203-432-4074 (Phone)
203-432-4876 (Fax)
Jeffrey Fagan
Columbia Law School ( email )
435 West 116th Street
New York, NY 10025
United States
212-854-2624 (Phone)
212-854-7946 (Fax)
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