The Situationist

The Spatial Situation of Crime and Criminal Law

Posted by Adam Benforado on May 13, 2010

No pressure (except for you, grandma — loyal reader number 1), but I have a new article out in the most recent issue of the Cardozo Law Review.  The abstract for The Geography of Criminal Law is below.

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When Westerners explain the causes of actions or outcomes in the criminal law context, they demonstrate a strong tendency to overestimate the importance of dispositional factors, like thinking, preferring, and willing, and underestimate the impact of interior and exterior situational factors, including environmental, historical, and social forces, as well as affective states, knowledge structures, motives, and other unseen aspects of our cognitive frameworks and processes. One of the situational factors that we are particularly likely to overlook is physical space—that is, landscapes, places, natures, boundaries, and spatialities. Our shortsightedness comes at a great cost. Spatial concerns shape legal structures, order interactions, and influence behavior.

To understand these dynamics, this Article establishes the foundation for a new spatial analysis of criminal law. By casting a wide net and capturing data across a diverse set of fields, this Article uncovers unappreciated but vital parallels, connections, and patterns concerning the ways in which physical space—and the meanings that we attach to spatial elements—affect (1) the proximate decision to commit a crime, (2) the likelihood a given person will become a criminal, (3) the experience of victimization, (4) the way in which policing is conducted, (5) what a crime is and how it is prosecuted, and (6) the consequences of being convicted.

As the first Article in a broader project, this systematic spatial analysis provides the basis for future work dedicated to understanding the origins of our criminal system and assessing whether our current legal structures—from the laws on the books to the practices of police officers to our approaches to punishment—align with our societal needs and values, and, thus, whether the structures we have in place ought to be changed. Instead of building its normative conclusions on geographical analysis alone, the project employs the lens of the mind sciences—including social psychology, social cognition, evolutionary psychology, and related fields—to investigate and explain identified spatial dynamics. This research offers the best hope for unlocking, among other concerns, why our justice system has focused on physically isolating criminals from society; why laws are frequently structured around protecting the physical boundaries of the body, home, and community; why more police shootings occur in certain areas than others; and why we have spatially-embedded laws that become inoperative when an individual leaves a jurisdiction.

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Click here for the full article on SSRN.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Looting,” “The Situation of Suspicion,” The Legal Situation of the Underclass,” Jennifer Eberhardt’s “Policing Racial Bias” – Video,”Clarence Darrow on the Situation of Crime and Criminals,” Why Criminals Obey the Law – Abstract,” and “The Situation of Criminality – Abstract.”

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3 Responses to “The Spatial Situation of Crime and Criminal Law”

  1. [...] how people understand and use legal information. For example, Professor Adam Benforado‘s new paper explores how spatial situations affect various participants in criminal cases, while another of his [...]

  2. [...] understanding and use of legal information. For example, Professor Adam Benforado’s new paper explores how spatial situations affect the law-related behavior and thinking of various [...]

  3. ronin5557 said

    Very interesting. As a long time criminal defense lawyer, even I had not appreciate some of the points made. While there may be patterns to be analyzed, the outcome of any individual case is often dependent on the particular individuals. An incompetent attorney fails where a more experienced and more capable lawyer succeeds. Judges, obviously, play a critical role. If judge “A” comes out to the bench, I can achieve “x.” And if Judge “B” comes out, I can accomplish “y.” However, no player often has a larger impact on a particular case than the prosecutor. Unethical prosecutors, as I’ve written at my website (http://www.relentlessdefense.com/prosecutors.html) pose the greatest threat to the administration of justice — for they have the ability to falsify evidence and withhold exculpatory evidence from defense attorneys. Between the macro-type influences noted by the author, and the daily experiences of attorneys like me, it is a wonder that treatment of criminal defendants is so disparate.

    Regards,

    Kevin Mahoney

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