The typical point of departure for understanding crime is to investigate differences between individuals to discern what characteristics distinguish offenders from nonoffenders, high-rate from low-rate offenders, and persistent from less persistent offenders. It is often the case that psychological, family, biological, social, and environmental factors are front-runners for explaining why people commit crimes. Reinforcing this type of thinking are the media and other news outlets, which often discuss how biological insults and family problems, among others, lead to a particular criminal’s behavioral patterns or explain why he or she committed a particular crime. Although much has been learned about why individuals offend, much has also been learned about the striking patterns of crime across geographical entities. As such, focusing only on the individual may not generate an extensive portrait of what explains crime. A neighborhood or community is one geographical example of place that can be considered an explanatory source of crime and is the focus of this research paper.
Dating back to the era of Burgess, Park, Shaw, and McKay of the Chicago School of sociology, communities and neighborhoods in the United States have been systematically studied for decades to understand how characteristics of areas within a city are correlated not only with crime but also with other social ills that tend to occur in the same areas. Since the early studies of the Chicago School, criminologists and sociologists have learned a tremendous amount about crime rates across neighborhoods, correlates of neighborhood crime, and even the offending behaviors of youth living in particular neighborhoods.
According to Sampson (2006, pp. 34–35), a consistent set of “neighborhood facts” have emerged over many decades of research on neighborhood conditions and crime. First, neighborhoods show much variation in terms of inequality. Research has shown that neighborhoods vary substantially in terms of their racial segregation and socioeconomic standing. In fact, neighborhoods that have the highest percentages of minorities are also often the poorest and most isolated neighborhoods. Second, it appears that many problems tend to co-occur in particular neighborhoods. Neighborhoods that have high levels of crime often face other problems, including juvenile delinquency, disorder, higher percentages of infant mortality and low birth weight, school dropout, and child abuse—the list goes on and on. Third, many studies have concluded that neighborhood inequality, segregation, and more generally concentrated disadvantage are often characteristic of neighborhoods with high rates of victimization and the problems mentioned earlier. Fourth, studies that have produced these correlations show consistent findings across various geographical areas investigated. For instance, a correlation between concentrated disadvantage (e.g., poverty and ethnic–racial segregation) and crime is found whether the unit of analysis is the community area, census tracts, police beats, or other classifications of “neighborhood.” Many of these research facts are the impetus for this research paper, and they will be used to further explore some of the mechanisms responsible for the link between neighborhoods and crime.
This research paper explores several of the “neighborhood facts” just mentioned by discussing theories that attempt to explain why crimes rates vary by neighborhoods or communities, research evidence on the specific correlates of crime across neighborhoods, and limitations of research and obstacles facing researchers who are attempting to explain the link between neighborhoods and crime. This research paper also discusses the evidence on how neighborhood contexts influence offending behaviors of adolescents, which are different from crime rates.