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

56 Pages Posted: 20 Jan 2009 Last revised: 7 May 2013

See all articles by Andrew V. Papachristos

Andrew V. Papachristos

Sociology; Northwestern University - Institute for Policy Research

Tracey L. Meares

Yale University - Law School

Jeffrey Fagan

Columbia Law School

Date Written: January 12, 2009


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.

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

JEL Classification: K42, K14

Suggested Citation

Papachristos, Andrew V. and Meares, Tracey Louise 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: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1326631

Andrew V. Papachristos (Contact Author)

Sociology ( email )

2001 Sheridan Road
Evanston, IL 60208
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HOME PAGE: http://www.papachristos.org

Northwestern University - Institute for Policy Research ( email )

2003 Sheridan Rd
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Tracey Louise Meares

Yale University - Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
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203-432-4074 (Phone)
203-432-4876 (Fax)

Jeffrey Fagan

Columbia Law School ( email )

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New York, NY 10027
United States
212-854-2624 (Phone)
212-854-7946 (Fax)

HOME PAGE: http://www.law.columbia.edu/fac/Jeffrey_Fagan

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