Criminal Justice and American Life

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Part I: This American Life

In the first case of Brandon Carroll, the Afghanistan veteran suffered from anomie, or feelings of social isolation while trying to re-invent his personal identity to fit into the context of American life. According the interview by Kotlowitz (2013), Carroll worked as a medic for the marines while serving a one year tour. The army was a good fit for him because he “certainly lacked discipline [as a teenager]” (Kotlowitz, 2013). His lifestyle in Afghanistan reflected a period of mistrust of others, violence and horrific memories. Trying to consolidate his life and reconcile with his past in order to be a normal civilian was difficult for him. Carroll’s case relates to anomie theory because he suffered from social alienation and could not adjust properly: “personal identity within a cultural context includes a sense of continuity and discontinuity in life-course development which shapes personality and the coherency of the self-structure” (Wilson, 2010, p. 24). Since he was not able to form proper social bonds with society in his time with the military, his life suffered. Just like the inner city drug dealer, Carroll had the same mentality that in everyday life, “someone is going to test you” (Kotlowitz, 2013). Clearly, Carroll suffered from social isolation and anomie in the form of PTSD. 

The case of Curtis Jefferson aligned heavily with social disorganization theory on the basis of his need to survive and make money in a negative environment. According to Kotlowitz (2013), Jefferson started selling drugs at the age of sixteen and was used to seeing gun violence and criminal behavior as a model for behavior. However, he still felt the need to make money and craft a living from the skill sets that he had. Such a case falls in line with social disorganization theory because it includes the “subsidiary theme that success or failure are results wholly of personal qualities…” (Kawachi et al, 1999, p. 720). The emphasis on making money and trying to be affluent is a cultural tendency that is heavily enforced in the United States. So, Jefferson was clearly just trying to use his available means to make this a reality. Unfortunately, he resorted to crime because there were fewer legitimate options for making money: “the resulting social disorganization produces greater risk of delinquency and unemployment, and weaker labor force attachment, and hence disadvantages tend to cumulate throughout the life course” (Kawachi et al, 1999, p. 728). Surely, his case epitomizes the notion that society can push individuals towards crime if they do not have the same advantages to succeed as others do in different ecological settings. 

The Role of Environment and Policy Suggestions

As shown by the two previous cases mentioned, the environment plays an integral role in causing societal distress for individuals in dire circumstances. While the case of Carroll in Afghanistan showed that even limited exposure to a negative environment had a huge impact on his life, Jefferson’s case depicted a long-term relationship with crime because of his up-bringing. Both of them shared similar experiences, albeit being in different contexts. For instance, they both lamented that “they can never let their guard down” in their own context (Kotlowitz, 2013). Both examples included guns, the threat of violence and the overwhelming burden of feeling that a “piano could fall on you at any time” (Kotlowitz, 2013). Naturally, such feelings of distress cause social isolation, alienation and a difficult life for them both. Attempting to adjust to the norms of life without violence would be hard on them because they are used to living life that is not structured like that. Clearly, the environment that they lived in had a strong impact in their character and development of the self in society. 

A potentially positive set of policy suggestions include supporting safe neighborhoods at the federal level through gun law enforcement, objective treatment of all individuals as well as better personal treatment options. Mainly, removing as many guns as possible from the streets and fostering a society that gives job opportunities to everyone would be influential in giving people like Jefferson the option to opt out of criminal and deviant behavior. Similar to Crips and Bloods: Made in America, society’s attitudes and behavior towards people like Jefferson led to a slow but steady form of encouragement towards deviance. Policy should step up and take control over how much access people in those circumstances have to employment and cohesion in society. Consequently, his social isolation from a functional and healthy life would have fewer barriers to entry. The documentary of Pruitt-Igoe showed that just throwing money and planning is not enough; the state and federal government has to creative come up with policies that bring jobs, opportunities and enforcement for the development of better neighborhoods. Also, Carroll could benefit from taking advantage of similar adjustments to civilian life through veteran help programs. Wilson (2010) remarked that when it comes to PTSD patients, “cultural competence has shown the need to explore assessment, diagnosis, and treatment within a sensitive cultural framework that reflects knowledge and understanding of a culture” (Wilson, 2010, p. 21). If there was better education and reflection on the challenges that these people faced, then policy may be helpful in overturning existing notions of how veterans assimilate into life. 

Part II: Explaining Deviant Behavior

Murder by Proxy

Chiaberi’s (2010) documentary, Murder by Proxy, gave examples of deviant behavior that relate closely to social disorganization theory. In citing examples of postal workers and others that ‘went postal’ in the years of 1986 and beyond, the documentary showed that challenging life circumstances can easily lead to feelings of social alienation and crime. For instance, while the film cited that many of the mass killers had relatively normal lives, their financial stressors and circumstances were not taken into account. The struggles over debt, pay and raising families proved to be a major catalyst for serious and violent crimes. According to Kawachi et al (1999), “violent crimes (homicide, assault, robbery) were consistently associated with relative deprivation (income inequality) and indicators of low social capital” (p. 719). While this research article may be oriented to just extremely disparate situations of people in poverty, it also relates to people with excessive debt, mortgages, and school and car loans. The financial duress can clearly explain why some people just cannot take it anymore. Finally, Kawachi’s (1999) research found that “the greater the degree of income disparity in a given state, the higher were the rates of homicide (r= 0.74), aggravated assault (0.50) and robbery (0.36)” (Kawachi, 1999, p. 724). Taking debt and other major financial stressors into account, it is no wonder why ‘normal’ people resorted to such high levels of deviance according to social disorganization theory. 

Murder by Proxy also exemplified how anomie could explain and rationalize why so many people went on killing sprees. Taking into account Wilson’s (2010) analysis of anomie and how PTSD relates to it, many people are aware of the implications and society does help with enforcing healthy coping methods. However, the same stress is true of normal people with the exception that there were no really effective coping methods or forms of intense acknowledgement of the problem. The underlying means of coping with stress in normal life must be questioned: “if traumatic stress is universal in its psychobiological effects, are therapeutic interventions, in turn, designed in culture-specific ways to ameliorate the maladaptive consequences of dysregulated systems of affect, cognition, and coping efforts?” (Wilson, 2010, p. 9). The answer to this provocative question is no, there are fewer coping methods that society enforces. As a result, the stress produced by having a basic and overwhelming life can lead to anomie, or feelings of social isolation that can result in horrific violent tendencies. The people who committed the crimes were clearly left without any other option for escape and felt as though they had nothing left to lose. 

The Lottery

The Lottery by Sackler (2010) showcased examples of deviance that are explained by subculture theory. In showing that disparate and low-income families of New York City’s metropolitan area have a troubling set of circumstances, the film showed that the people’s values were different from what is normal. According to Thompson (2010), “culture conflict creates great potential for misunderstanding and antagonism, especially among the subordinate, lower-class groups regarding what is conforming behavior and what is deviant behavior” (Thompson, 2010, p. 104). So, lower class families like the ones in the film show how the subculture of crime and deviant behavior is a result of new norms being learned. For instance, the film gave examples of how some families did not even attend the lottery because they never thought they could escape (Sackler, 2010). Moreover, the parents who tried to mentor their children were merely making a moot point if society enforced different values that did not align with normal society. Consequently, Thompson’s (2010) analysis that “fluctuating crime rates in different parts of urban society” stem from different “values, customs, and standards of conduct” was apparent (p. 104). Sub culture theory clearly explains how and why students and youth in the area were resorting to lifestyles of crime and deviance: the environment called for different taught values and enforced them thoroughly.

The documentary’s depiction of deviant behavior could also be easily explained with differential association theory. Because the parents and people have different work lives and availability to resources, the “harmony, solidarity, and consensus over basic values and beliefs” is compromised (Matsueda, 2000, p. 126). The youths are then assimilated into this different and negative form of behavior on a continual basis. For instance, the documentary depicted youths who thought that education in the school would be a waste of time and not a good fit for them. Clearly, they had negative feelings towards how traditional society suggested that they behave. Consequently, this created a deviant attitude in people that was “characterized by specialization rather than similarity, coercion rather than harmony, conflict rather than consensus” (Matsueda, 2000, p. 126). Differential association theory thus clearly explained why the environment fostered the deviant behavior and ultimate resort to crime rather than formal education and employment.


Kawachi, I., Kennedy, B., & Wilkinson, R. (1999). Crime: social disorganization and relative deprivation. Social Science & Medicine, 48, 719-731.

Kotlowitz, A. (2013, January 11). 484: Doppelgängers | This American Life. Home | This American Life. Retrieved February 5, 2013, from

Matsueda, R. (2000). Differential Association Theory. Historical, Conceptual and Theoretical Issues, 1, 125-130.

Chiaberi, E. (Director). (2010). Murder by Proxy [Documentary]. USA: Aldamisa.

Sackler, M. (Director). (2010). The lottery [Documentary]. USA: Great Curve Films.

Thompson, W., & Bynum, J. (2010). Sociological Explanations of Juvenile Delinquency: Social Strain and Cultural Transmission Theories. Juvenile Delinquency: A Sociological Approach (pp. 91-113). New York: Pearson.

Wilson, J. (2010). The Lens of Culture: Theoretical and Conceptual Perspectives in the Assessment of Psychological Trauma and PTSD. Cross-Cultural Assessment of Psychological Trauma and PTSD (pp. 3-31). New York: Springer-Verlag.