Outline & Assess the Role of the Police & Courts in the
Social Construction of Crime 
Social Construction is when something is given meaning by the society in which it exists. Different societies give different meanings, therefore one action or behaviour can be interpreted very differently in different societies. Sociologists argue that crime is socially constructed. Nothing is a crime until a law is made against a particular act or behaviour. Different societies have different laws – and laws often change - so what is considered crime is relative to time and place. For example, homosexuality used to be a crime in the UK, but now it is legal. However, it is still criminal in many societies.
The way that laws are enforced can shape society’s views of crime. This means that those responsible for enforcing the law – the police and courts – must have a significant role in the social construction of crime.
One major way in which crime is socially constructed by the police is through the official statistics. Police statistics are a record of all crimes reported to the police and can show how many of these are resolved. These statistics shape our understanding of crime because they determine the crime rate, meaning they inform the public how much crime is happening, and what types of crimes are increasing or decreasing. If the statistics are wrong, then the public’s understanding of crime is likely to be wrong also. Marxists argue that official statistics over-represent working class crimes and ignore white-collar crime and corporate crime. They point out that the categories used by the police to record crime don’t even incorporate crimes of the rich and powerful. Marxists argue that this is an ideological weapon, tricking the public into thinking about crime only as a working-class problem. Additionally, there have been concerns that statistics are manipulated by the police to give a false impression of the crime rate. This is done through the processes of cuffing and coughing. Cuffing is when the police do not record crimes that they don’t think they can solve. Coughing is when police get offenders to own up to crimes that they may not have committed, in exchange for a more lenient sentence. Altogether, this deceives the public into believing there is less crime and a higher rate of solving crime than is actually the case.
Many sociologists argue that crime statistics completely lack validity as the police are reliant on public reporting of crime for 80% of their work. Most crimes are not reported by the public and are therefore hidden, meaning that the statistics only represent a tiny minority of crimes. This distorts the public’s understanding of crime but not necessarily through the actions of the police. It could be argued that the public are more responsible for socially constructing crime through the statistics than the police. Functionalists dispute the use of police statistics to socially construct crime and do not accept that much crime is hidden. They argue that the statistics may have minor flaws, but overall provide a realistic and accurate record of all crime.
Another way that crime is socially constructed by the police is through police discretion. Their job is to enforce the law, but they are encouraged to use their personal discretion to decide how and when to do this. The individual norms and values of police officers will therefore determine how and when the law is enforced, therefore the police shape the way in which the law is used. For example, Colman & German (1982) showed that when police officers have racist beliefs, they enforce the law more harshly to some ethnic minorities. This would deceive the public into believing some ethnic minorities are more criminal than they actually are. This sort of discretion can be institutional, rather than just individual. For example, the Macpherson Inquiry into the racially motivated murder of Stephen Lawrence found that the Metropolitan Police force was institutionally racist.
As with police discretion, the norms and values of Judges and Magistrates will also influence their decisions in a courtroom. Many sociologists are critical of the fact that the vast majority of Magistrates and (especially) Judges are white, male and from wealthy backgrounds. A large proportion are also over 65. The way they apply the law may therefore be influenced by their middle/upper-class, white male norms and values.
It can be argued that discretion is not really a factor; that police, judges and Magistrates are trained professionals who make objective decisions about criminals. On top of this, it can be argued that – again – it is the wider public, not the police or judges – who socially construct crime, because police can only respond to what the public report (so if the ethnic minority crime-rate looks to be increasing, it is because the public are reporting more ethnic crime), while Judges are only responsible for sentencing; it is the public (in the form of an impartial jury) who decide whether a criminal is guilty or not. It has also been argued by many sociologists – particularly Interactionists like Stan Cohen – that the mass media are more influential in socially constructing crime than the police and courts. Through strategies like moral panics, moral crusades and over-representation/stereotyping of certain groups, the mass media instruct the public what/who to be concerned about, shaping views, opinions and attitudes.
In conclusion, the police and courts inevitably have a role in the social construction of crime and the way in which they respond to criminals and record crimes can help shape the views of the public. But it is the wider public themselves, influenced by the mass-media, that perhaps have a more significant role. This means that it is impossible to single out one or two agents in society for socially constructing crime as it is something that is done by the whole of society.
Crime & Deviance
A2 Unit: G673