Why Do Criminals Obey the Law? The Influence of Legitimacy and Social Networks on Active Gun Offenders

Andrew V. Papachristos
Tracey L. Meares
Jeffrey Fagan, Columbia Law School


Recent research on procedural justice and legitimacy suggests that compliance with the law is best secured not by mere threat of force, but by fostering beliefs in the fairness of the legal systems and in the legitimacy of legal actors. To date, however, this research has been based on general population surveys and more banal types of law violating behavior (such as unpaid parking tickets, excessive noise, etc.). Thus, while we know why normal people obey the law, we do not have similar knowledge as it pertains to the population most likely to commit serious violent crimes. This study fills this void by using a unique survey of active offenders in Chicago called the Chicago Gun Project (CGP). Part of a larger evaluation effort of the Project Safe Neighborhoods program, the CGP posed a series of individual, neighborhood, legitimacy, and social network questions to a sample of 141 offenders in 52 Chicago neighborhoods. The CGP is designed to understand how the perceptions of the law and social networks of offenders influence their understanding of the law and subsequent law violating behavior. Our findings suggest that while criminals as a whole have negative opinions of the law and legal authority, the sample of gun offenders (just like non-criminals) are more likely to comply with the law when they believe in (a) the substance of the law, and (b) the legitimacy of legal actors, especially the police. Moreover, we find that opinions of compliance to the law are not uniformly distributed across the sample population. In other words, not all criminals are alike in their opinions of the law. Gang members - but especially gang members with social networks saturated with criminal associates - are significantly less likely to view the law and its agents as a legitimate form of authority. However, those individuals (including gang member) with less saturated criminal networks, actually tend to have more positive opinions of the law, albeit these opinions are still overall negative.