Exploring the Link between Crime and Socio-Economic Status in Ottawa and Saskatoon: A Small-Area Geographical Analysis

2. Social and Geographic Aspects of Crime: A Review of Theory and Literature

Research in criminology reveals that certain social characteristics are linked with a greater likelihood of involvement in criminal activity. As Sacco and Kennedy (2002, p.39) explain, it has been well documented that most offenders tend to be young, disadvantaged males. In fact, in Canada in 1999, 86 percent of all adult offenders and 75 percent of all youth offenders (aged 12 to 17) were males. Social and economic disadvantage has been found to be strongly associated with crime, particularly the most serious offences including assault, robbery and homicide. Data collected on offenders shows that they tend to be unemployed or employed in low-paying, unskilled jobs. There is also an association between offenders and minority groups, particularly African-Americans in the United States and Aboriginal people in Canada (Short, 1997, p. 26; Sacco and Kennedy 2002, p. 40).

The social characteristics of victims of crime are similar to those of offenders. According to the 1999 General Social Survey (GSS), young people in Canada between the ages of 15 and 24 experienced the highest rates of violent and property crimes. The GSS also found that rates of personal victimization were highest in urban areas and among single people and those living in households with low incomes (below $30,000). In his study of Canada's 24 largest cities, Mata (2003) found that higher rates of crime were linked to the presence of groups at risk including Aboriginals, women and lone parents. However, with respect to certain property related crimes such as break and enter, auto-theft and vandalism, studies have shown that rates of victimization in Canada are greater for households with higher incomes (Sacco and Kennedy 2002, p. 48).

The study of the social characteristics of offenders and victims can be extended into a critical examination of the role of place in influencing criminal activity. Research has been conducted on the social and economic factors contributing to the level and type of crime experienced in a community. The geography of crime with its emphasis on mapping and spatial analysis has emerged in recent years as a growing area of research. However, 'cartographic criminology' has a long history. For example, in the 19th century, community leaders and government officials in Europe and North America produced maps to demonstrate that patterns of crime were spread unevenly across cities and regions (Herbert 1989, p.1).

In the 1920s and 1930s, ecological theory (also referred to as the Chicago School of Criminology) was developed by Robert Park and Ernest Burgess. It postulates that crime will always display an uneven geographical distribution and that this variation is the result of the interrelationship between humans (or groups of humans) and their surroundings. As Schmalleger and Volk (2001, p. 201) explain, ecological theory emphasizes the demographic and geographic attributes of groups and views "the social disorganization that characterizes delinquency areas as a major cause of criminality and of victimization". Using Chicago as a model, Park and Burgess found that criminal activity was associated with what they referred to as "zones in transition" located around the city centre (Winterdyk 2000, p. 216).

As supporters of the ecology approach, Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay (1942), advanced social disorganization theory in their study of communities with high levels of crime. Again, using Chicago as a case study, they observed that crime rates were unevenly distributed throughout the city in a non-random manner and that communities closest to the city centre were those with the highest rates. These neighbourhoods were found to be areas in transition, having low socio-economic status, high numbers of ethnic/racial minorities and high residential mobility (Wilcox, Land, Hunt 2003, p.28). Shaw and McKay concluded that the high levels of crime were not a function of the personal attributes of the groups living in the neighbourhoods but rather argued that "the structural factors of poverty, high heterogeneity, and high mobility created 'social disorganization', and it was community-level social disorganization that was presumed to cause crime" (Wilcox, Land, Hunt 2003, p.28). Furthermore, Short (1997, pp.50-51) argues that research (primarily in the United States) has found that in broad terms, other factors often combine with poverty to produce high rates of violent crime such as family structure and community change. In the mid 1990s, there was a revival of Shaw and McKay's approach in the form of the "New Chicago School" which adopted computerized mapping and spatial analysis techniques, particularly through the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) (Ainsworth 2001, p. 85).

Working within the framework of the ecology of crime, American criminologist Rodney Stark (1987) asks how neighbourhoods can remain areas of high crime and deviance despite a complete turnover of their populations. He concludes that there must be something about places that sustains crime. Stark developed a theory of deviant neighbourhoods and proposes that there are five characteristics, or essential factors, that distinguish high crime areas:

  1. high population density,
  2. poverty,
  3. mixed use of buildings for residential and commercial purposes,
  4. transience, and
  5. dilapidation.

Stark (1987, pp.895-904) proposes thirty propositions to form a theory of dangerous places and to explain the ecology of crime. They include the following:

  1. The higher the density, the greater the association between those most and least disposed to crime.
  2. The greater the density, the higher the level of moral cynicism.
  3. Where homes are more crowded, there will be a greater tendency to congregate outside the home in places where there are opportunities to deviate.
  4. Where homes are crowded, there will be less supervision of children.
  5. A reduced level of supervision results in poor school achievement, with a consequent reduction in stakes in conformity.
  6. Poor, dense neighbourhoods tend to be mixed-use neighbourhoods.
  7. Mixed-use offers increased opportunity for congregating outside the home in places conducive to deviance.
  8. Poor, dense, mixed-use neighbourhoods have high transience rates.

The ecological approach has been criticized for its over-emphasis on place while overlooking the individual. As Schmalleger and Volk (2001, p. 204) explain, by focusing on the role that social institutions and social disorganization play in criminal activity, ecological approaches do not adequately account for the influence of "individual psychology, distinctive biology, or personal choice on criminal activity". Another criticism is that rates of neighbourhood crime can be influenced to some degree by police decision-making where active enforcement in a particular community creates the perception of higher levels of criminal activity than actually exist. Many crimes occur in neighbourhoods that are not characterized by social disorganization. Crimes related to violence, property and drugs routinely occur in affluent communities and other parts of the city (Schmalleger and Volk 2001, p. 205). Furthermore, Felson (2002, pp.62-63) contends that rates of residential burglary are higher in lower density cities and suburban communities where physical layout and design features offer greater opportunity.

Another broad theoretical tradition, which addresses some of the criticisms of the ecological approach, is the concept of criminal opportunity. It is assumed that opportunity is the necessary condition for crime and that the growing number of consumer goods in stores and homes and the sharp rise in personal affluence has provided increasing opportunities for criminal activity. Closely associated with this concept is the routine activitiestheory of crime, in which demographic or social class factors contribute to particular activity routines that merge three prerequisites for crime:

  1. the presence of a motivated offender (such as an unemployed teenager)
  2. a suitable target (such as a home containing goods which could be easily resold)
  3. the absence of a capable guardian (homeowner, watchful neighbour, friend or relative)

(Clarke and Felson, 1993, p.9; Knox 1995, p.256; Hackler 2000, p.169).

As Wilcox, Land and Hunt (2003, p.22) describe, the routine activities approach "stems from rational choice assumptions and emphasizes the circumstances under which crime is most likely". While a small number of offenders may choose targets far from their home, the large majority will "stake-out" local areas with which they are familiar when searching for a suitable target. Offenders tend to operate in areas that they have come to know, possibly while engaging in non-criminal activities (Ainsworth 2001, p.86).

With growing affluence and changing lifestyles, people are spending less time in home-based routine activities and more time outside of the home in activities that increase their risk of being victims (i.e. in bars and other public places). At the same time, their unguarded residences are more likely to be targets of crime, particularly in suburban areas, which usually do not have as many neighbours who are relatives or close acquaintances and who are effective guardians of their property (Hackler 2000, p.170). Another factor is the proliferation of easily transportable wealth, such as computers, digital cameras and DVD players, putting homes (and in many cases individuals) possessing such valuables at a greater risk of being victimized. As Felson (2002, p.35) expresses, the items most sought after by offenders are "concealable, removable, available, valuable, enjoyable, and disposable".

Within the context of the geography of crime, a number of recent studies in North America and Europe have employed data and mapping techniques to explore the relationship between crime and socio-economic status at the intra-urban level. For example, research in Canada has shown that crime is not evenly distributed within cities and there are significant differences in the levels and types of crime experienced between cities. Cities in Western Canada generally have higher rates of crime than those in Central and Atlantic Canada. In a study conducted by the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, Fitzgerald, Wisener and Savoie (2004) examined the neighbourhood characteristics and distribution of crime in Winnipeg. They analyzed police reported crime data from the 2001 Incident-Based Uniform Crime Reporting Survey (UCR2) as well as the 2001 Census and City of Winnipeg land-use data. The study revealed that crime in Winnipeg in 2001 was concentrated in the city centre and that were significant differences in the characteristics of high and low crime neighbourhoods. High crime areas were found to have lower socio-economic status, less residential stability, higher population densities and certain land use patterns that may increase opportunity for crime in the city.

Ley and Smith (2000) examined the association between crime and social deprivation in Toronto and Vancouver. They secured disaggregated crime data for 207 patrol areas from the Metro Toronto Police and found high crime areas in and around the central city that when mapped corresponded closely with the most deprived neighbourhoods. A similar situation existed in Vancouver with areas of high deprivation intersecting with high levels of reported crime. Massimo, Haining and Signoretta (2001) employed a GIS-based spatial analysis to model high-intensity crime areas (HIAs) in a sample of large cities in England. They integrated census data into their model and found that HIAs are characterized by populations that are deprived, live at high density and experience higher levels of population turnover. Bowers and Hirschfield (1999) used GIS to explore relations between crime and the distribution of different types of disadvantaged, middle income and affluent residential neighbourhoods in Merseyside in north-west England. The study demonstrated how a GIS can be used to build up a complex, multi-level picture of relations between victim and offence locations.