Some Victims Were Criminals: The Equivalent Group Explanation

Some Victims Were Criminals: The Equivalent Group Explanation

The equivalent group explanation portrays vic- tims who engage in certain high-risk deviant life- styles in a less-than-sympathetic light. It emphasizes the possibility that certain pairs of victims and vic- timizers share the same interests, participate in the same activities, and are drawn from homogenous or overlapping lifestyle groups. According to this the- ory, offenders select their victims from their own circles of adversaries, acquaintances, and even for- mer friends. Adherence to and participation in the norms of certain deviant subcultures can sharply raise the chances of becoming a casualty. Fellow lawbreakers may be viewed as “fair game” or “easy prey” because their own involvement in criminal behavior discourages them from turning to the authorities they despise for help (see Fattah, 1991; Siegel, 1998).

Many murders can be pointed to as illustrations of the explanation that both parties were drawn from overlapping social groupings. Most perpetra- tors and many of their victims had been in trouble with the law before their final showdowns, accord- ing to a survey of more than 8,000 prosecutions carried out in the nation’s 75 largest counties during 1988. About 45 percent of the deceased turned out to have criminal records (arrests or convictions for misdemeanors or felonies) as did 75 percent of all defendants (see Dawson and Langan, 1994).

Entire categories of killings and armed assaults are reminders that not all murder victims were totally innocent, law-abiding people minding their own business. A considerable proportion across the coun- try could be characterized as “criminal-on-criminal.” The most obvious examples of overlapping illegal lifestyles leading to violence include mob wars between organized crime families engaged in racke- teering who try to get rid of the competition; drive- by shootings of street gang members embroiled in turf battles; fights to control the trade among rival drug- dealing crews; and inmates consumed by pent-up rage attacking each other over minor matters.

Conflicts among participants in the drug scene spark many casualties: cutthroat competition

between dealers, disputes between buyers and sellers (quarrels over high prices, money owed, misrepresen- tation of the contents, and scams surrounding inferior quality); robberies of dealers or customers; and what the FBI calls “brawls due to the influence of narcotics” by people acting out of character because they were high from crack smoking, cocaine snorting, and methamphetamine injecting. Adding these catego- ries together, drug-related murders can soar to stag- gering body counts in metropolitan areas at certain times (see Tardiff, Gross, and Messner, 1986; Spunt et al., 1993). Nationwide, a number of slayings that were deemed narcotics-related claimed many lives during the height of the crack epidemic in the late 1980s, and peaked in 1989 at about 1,400 (Timrots and Snyder, 1994). In Washington, D.C., drug- related murders boosted the homicide rate more strikingly than anywhere else during the late 1980s. About 20 percent of murders (in which the motive was known to the police) in 1985 were drug-related; either the coroner determined the victim was under the influence of drugs, traces of controlled substances or paraphernalia were discov- ered at the crime scene, or the killing occurred in a drug hangout such as a “shooting gallery” or “crack house,” according to the Office of Criminal Justice in the District of Columbia. This proportion rose to 34 percent the following year, jumped to 51 percent in 1987, soared to 80 percent in 1988, and crested at 85 percent of all homicides in D.C. during the first part of 1989 (Berke, 1989; Martz et al., 1989). In New York City, drug-related killings also peaked by the close of the 1980s at over one-third of all slayings but dropped by half to 17 percent by the end of the 1990s as the crack epidemic waned (see Karmen, 2006).

Criminals attacking other criminals behind bars in the nation’s jails and prisons was long considered to be a part of daily life in institutions. Perhaps the problem was even tolerated to some degree because the casualties were considered by many to be expendable persons who deserved to suffer. In addi- tion, the constant threat of violence was presumed to enhance the deterrent effects of being “sent away.” Between the years 2001 and 2012, about 255 inmates were murdered by other inmates in


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the nation’s county jails and 670 were slain in state prisons (Noonan and Ginder, 2014).

The equivalent group explanation also helps account for the carnage among teenage boys that intensified from the mid-1980s into the early 1990s. The overwhelming majority (about 85 percent) of these premature deaths were from gunfire. A cycle of aggression and retaliation developed as growing numbers of young men from poverty-stricken fam- ilies in drug-ravaged communities armed them- selves, both for self-protection and for prestige— whether or not they were directly involved in the crack, cocaine, or heroin trade that was thriving in their neighborhoods. When they fought each other with weapons, often over minor beefs that seemed matters of life and death at the time, the body count soared. These young gunslingers did not “freely choose” their lifestyles, however. The root causes of this teenage arms race were economic hardships, failing schools, dwindling legitimate job opportu- nities, limited supervised recreational activities, fam- ily instability, and a pervasive subculture of violence (see Fingerhut, Ingram, and Feldman, 1992; and Blumstein and Rosenfeld, 1998).

The subculture of violence theory explains why fighting may be the first resort, rather than a last resort, for certain offenders and their victims. Drawn from the study of murders in Philadelphia cited earlier, the theorist (Wolfgang, 1958) con- tended that young, inner-city males had been raised in an environment that stressed using physi- cal force to settle disputes. The ready resort to fighting as a means of conflict resolution was viewed as positive, necessary, and even respectable by fellow members immersed in this subculture, although using such violent means to settle argu- ments would be condemned as inappropriate and downright illegal in mainstream culture. The roots of this subculture (to the extent that it really exists as a distinct way of life within a larger militarized society) might be traced back to the old South and the old West, as well as to “lower class culture” in general. The focus of the values, beliefs, and tradi- tions in this subculture is on achieving respect and on the recognition of manhood, which is socially constructed to emphasize the ideal of “machismo.”

To be viewed as “manly,” a teenage boy or young adult must react forcefully to even perceived slights. In the process, members of the subculture of violence engage in constant spontaneous fights that blur the distinction between aggressor and victim (Wolfgang and Ferracuti, 1967; and Pearson-Nelson, 2009).

Controversies surround all of the explanations that center on deviant lifestyles and the membership of victims and offenders in equivalent groups. A blame-the-victim bias slips into the interpreta- tions. Research findings about the number and per- cent of murder victims who got high on alcohol or controlled substances before they died raise the pos- sibility that some casualties of deadly showdowns may have been partly at fault for the escalation of tensions and the outbreak of violence because their behavior “under the influence” was similar to the disinhibited actions of their attackers. Similarly, teenagers and young adults in gangs who end up injured or mortally wounded are written off as troublemakers who “got themselves killed” while taking part in illegal activities. Branded as young “gangbangers,” “thugs,” or drug abusers, they are demeaned as full-time lawbreakers who become part-time casualties (“today’s victim was yesterday’s offender”). Their entire lives are judged and stigma- tized solely on the basis of the worst incidents that are known, assumed, or alleged about them: their criminal records. The unmistakable implication is that their suffering is less deserving of compassion, support, and respectful treatment by the authorities who handle their cases.

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