Law in Contemporary Society

-- By JenniferCoffey - 14 Feb 2008

Criminal Trials: Regulating Anxiety about Crime

One purpose of the criminal trial other than fact-finding is to regulate levels of anxiety in our society. Criminal trials serve both to lessen and to heighten the law-abiding public’s anxiety about crime in the United States. Trials, together with associated media coverage, standardize perceptions about the likelihood of victimization and the likelihood of punishment.

Trials as Anxiety-Reducing: The Likelihood of Punishment

Trials are intuitively cited as anxiety-reducing. Media focus on trials and convictions rather than on unsolved crimes (other than sensational mysteries) serves to reinforce the belief that criminals are caught and punished, that the justice system is successful at keeping dangerous people off the streets and that this incapacitation reduces the likelihood that you will be the victim of a horrific crime. Although deterrence is instinctively the critical factor here, the anxiety-reducing function of trials results instead almost wholly from their ability to shape a picture of punishment. Trials are memorably illustrative of what would happen if you were to become the (unlucky) victim of a crime: the perpetrator would be caught and brought to justice, the story would receive media attention, you would have the opportunity to face the criminal in court and to listen as the damning facts are revealed, resulting in a conviction. Moreover, this certain conviction would afford you the opportunity to publicly explain your suffering in the form of a victim impact statement before the perpetrator is, following harsh words from the judge, slapped with the maximum available sentence, thereby vindicating your experience. This same logic extends to anxiety about being murdered, though in that case you would be spoken of highly by family, the media (flattering photographs included) and the prosecutor before your killer is sentenced to the death in prison that he deserves. These visions fit into public fantasies about crime whether driven by fear or self-importance. They root our ideas about what the criminal justice system should look like in a highly personal vision of retribution, defining justice as it pertains to you, thereby reducing crime anxiety.

Trials as Anxiety-Producing: The Likelihood of Victimization

Though crime fantasies often end with just resolution, the fact that they exist at all is indicative of a baseline level of anxiety about crime. Criminal trials, fueled by media coverage, produce anxiety about the likelihood of becoming a victim in the first place. While one might expect anxiety about crime to track closely with crime rates, it isn’t clear that that is the case. In fact, empirical research would more likely show that anxiety about crime has increased over time independent of changes in the crime rate. More than producing such anxiety generally, trials and attendant media coverage control its object and encourage its channeling in ways thought to be socially desirable.

Desired Outcomes

Public anxiety about crime provides the foundation for the criminal justice system. The so-called prison-industrial complex has grown up dramatically in response to these anxieties and their public manifestations. The prison system costs the United States tens of billions of dollars each year and employs tens of thousands of Americans. The private security industry has similarly flourished. Like anxiety about terrorism, anxiety about crime has paved the way for expanded executive, legislative and judicial power and changed normative ideas about the scope of the justice system. Three strikes laws and Megan’s Law-type statutes are examples of the role public outrage plays in shaping our legal system. Both were born out of the fortunately rare but extremely sensational crime of kidnapping young, white girls. Both represent changes in the way society views punishment, both means and outcome, largely without regard to empirical data about effectiveness (assuming the stated goal of crime prevention as opposed to retributive vengeance). Politicians, including prosecutors and judges, run “tough on crime” campaigns, making it unsurprising that countries who appoint, rather than elect, their prosecutors report fewer criminal trials and shorter sentences.

Dealing with crime or the threat of crime also promotes social cohesion otherwise absent from many neighborhoods today. Anxiety about crime creates a kind of social capital. Public outrage is a rallying device. Courthouse protests, town hall meetings and petitions like the one that lead to Megan’s Law bring the community together around a cause that everyone can (and should and must) support.

Desired Objects

Anxiety produced by trials shapes views about people. It affects perceptions of race, income and education, resulting in the continuation of institutionalized racism and incentivizing socially preferable aspirations and appearance. Trials receiving the most coverage are those involving white, rich, young victims. These fall into two categories. The first includes traditionally publicized cases featuring a minority or disadvantaged male perpetrator up against a white, often affluent female victim. A recent example is the Wichita Massacre trial. Cases like this reinforce the “us vs. them” mentality, effectively creating anxiety about specific classes of people, particularly those we seek to marginalize. These ideas are reinforced at the conclusion of the trial when the maximum sentence is handed down to the uneducated, underrepresented minority convict.

The second category, which today draws even more attention, is the seemingly freak case of violence within the white affluent community often among members of the same household. Recent examples include the trials of Scott Peterson (which also inspired named legislation), Mary Winkler and Shawn Bentler. This second set of cases operates as a sort of reality tabloid. Often featuring abusive husbands or troubled teens these cases raise more general decline of society, reduction in moral values-type anxieties while also affording social cohesion around the self-differentiating thought, “that wouldn’t happen to me.” These trials therefore provide the best of both worlds, allowing communities to decry flagging moral standards while pointing the finger at the same time. While perpetrators in these cases traditionally offer excuses or justifications and receive lighter sentences (as in the Winkler case), today harsh sentences (for Peterson and Bentler) reflect the increased role of these trials in perpetuating the criminal justice spectacle.

  • The essay puts together a number of things we know and have talked about, occasionally adding a claim that would be good to have sourced, but isn't. In the end, trials both increase and decrease anxiety, are and are not independent of the news coverage, and--apparently--involve only a few people a year. That there are trials not covered by any press, that those are the overwhelming majority of trials, that even more than trials there are guilty pleas--and that therefore the majority of crime victims will never see a trial of the matters that arise out of the incident that harmed them--remains unsaid, and therefore, of course, unanalyzed. Whole paragraphs are devoted to phenomena as rare as hailstorms in the discussion of domestic water supply. What trials are to the criminal justice system should surely begin with "uncommon." What this essay needed was a clearer thesis, shorn of cliche and silent on what everyone always says, that emerged from seeing trial with fresh eyes.


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r6 - 12 Jan 2009 - 22:58:54 - IanSullivan
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