Formal controls, neighborhood disadvantage, and violent crime in U.S. cities: Examining (un)intended consequences

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Purpose This study examines the intended and unintended effects of formal social controls on violent crime within and across U.S. cities. Methods Using data from the National Neighborhood Crime Study, we assess whether greater police arrest activity and jail incarceration risk are associated with lower violent crime rates across cities. We also investigate whether greater use of these formal social controls exacerbates the relationship between extreme neighborhood disadvantage and violent crime. Results Results from multilevel analyses show that some formal controls (jail incarceration risk) reduce violent crime across cities, but other formal controls (police arrest activity) amplify the relationship between extreme neighborhood disadvantage and violent crime within cities. Conclusions Two main conclusions can be drawn from our analyses. First, we found evidence that some formal controls do reduce violent crime, while others do not. Second, our results support scholars’ arguments that formal controls have unintended consequences (e.g., Clear, 2007, 2008; Rose & Clear, 1998), specifically, by amplifying the effect of extreme neighborhood disadvantage on violent crime.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)58-65
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Criminal Justice
Publication statusPublished - Jan 1 2016



  • Community crime
  • Formal social controls
  • Neighborhood disadvantage
  • Violent crime

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Applied Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Law

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