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Theoretical perspective on the murder rate of Texas
In the recent decade, Texas has experienced a concerning amount of murders throughout the state. In 2015, homicide was the third leading cause of death for Texans between the ages of 15-34 years of age. Compared to the US murder rate, the Texas murder rate was slightly higher in 2015 at 5.6 per 100,000 and 5.7 per 100,000, respectively (UCR, 2019). In 2016, the US murder rate was at 5.4, while Texas was at 5.3; in 2017 the US was at 5.3 while Texas dropped to 5.0; and in 2018 the US was at 5.0 while Texas was at 4.6 (UCR, 2019). Interestingly, examining the same data in actual number of murders instead of the rate per 100,000 shows a different trend. The number of murder offenses in Texas had a significant increase every year from 2011 to 2016, according to the Index Crime Analysis report released by the Texas Department of Public Safety. Although 2017 represented a decrease in numbers of murders for the first time since 2011, it remained the second highest year in the past decade (Texas Department of Public Safety, 2018).
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The Uniform Crime Report defines murder and nonnegligent manslaughter as the willful killing by one person of another (Texas Department of Public Safety, 2018). This does not include attempted murder or assaults with the intent to kill, suicides, accidental deaths, or justifiable homicides. It is important to note that instances where the intent to kill is present, but unsuccessful, are not included under this definition of the UCR. It is important to understand the circumstances surrounding murders in order to begin to explain the causes.
The Index Crime Analysis report classifies the circumstances surrounding murder in Texas are broken down into felony and non-felony, accounting for 65.0% and 35.2%, respectively. The felony circumstance with the highest murder rate include arguments for diverse reasons (22.6% of total murders) followed closely by violent attacks (22.1% of total murders). There was only one cause of arguments that was significant enough to be classified in the data—argument over money or property (Texas Department of Public Safety, 2018). The non-felony circumstance with the highest murder rate is manslaughter, accounting for 1.3%; however, 25.7% involve unknown circumstances and 8.2% involve justifiable homicides and negligence (Texas Department of Public Safety, 2018).
Additionally, the Index Crime Analysis classifies the type of relationship between offender and victims as by family, not family but known to victim, and other (Texas Department of Public Safety, 2018). “Family” accounts for 13.0%, a majority being wives at 3.3% of total murders. “Not family but known to victim” accounts for 29.0%, a majority being acquaintances at 16.1% of total murders. “Other” accounts for 58.0%, mainly composed by strangers (21.5% of total murders), however, the offender-victim relationship of 36.5% of total murders is unknown (Texas Department of Public Safety, 2018).
The majority of both victims and offenders are males, ages 20-24 (Texas Department of Public Safety, 2018).
The Texas cities with the highest rate (per 100,000) of murders include Beaumont (13.5), Dallas (12.5), Houston (11.5), and Port Arthur (10.8) (Texas Department of Public Safety, 2018). The cities with the highest number of murders are Houston (276), Dallas (155), San Antonio (107), and Fort Worth (58) (UCR, 2019).
The above data shows that most murders in Texas occur during arguments (typically over money or property) between strangers who are generally males of 20-24 years of age. The theories that offer a proper explanation of the above problem are routine activities theory and general strain theory. This paper attempts to explain the problem mentioned above in Texas, focusing on Beaumont, Dallas, and Houston, logically within the context of these two theories.
General strain theory. General strain theory (GST) consists of three categories of strain which may have a significant impact on the commission of crime (Mazerolle & Piquero, 1997). The first type of strain occurs after a person’s failure or inability to achieve positive goals which represent a significant personal importance to them. This strain is caused by one of two ways, the gap between expected achievements and actual achievements and the gap between fair outcomes and actual outcomes. The second type of strain results from the loss of positive stimuli, in which a person loses something or has something that they value taken away (Mazerolle & Piquero, 1997). The third strain results from the introduction of negative, or noxious, stimuli, which involves exposure to negative experiences (Mazerolle & Piquero, 1997).
Robert Agnew expanded on the meaning and characteristic of strain by introducing a distinction between objective strain, subjective strain, and emotional responses (Baron, 2004). Objective strain are events that would qualify as strain to most people of a particular group that the individual is a part of. Subjective strain are events that are disliked by people how are experiencing or have experienced a specific strain, however, the group may not share the same view or response (Baron, 2004). Although emotional response is distinct from strain, it is closely linked to strain given it depends on an individual’s evaluation and effects of a significant event (Baron, 2004). Additionally, individuals with the same subjective perspective on strain may respond with different degrees of emotion or a different emotion altogether.
There are two different sets of factors that may increase or decrease the probability of strain leading to crime. These include factors that involve delinquent coping versus nondelinquent, for example social supports, temperaments, intelligence, values, self-esteem, self-efficacy, and even drug use (Aseltine, Gore, & Gordon, 2000; Baron, 2004; Mazerolle & Piquero, 1997). The second set of factors are those that can affect an individual’s disposition to crime, including prior experiences with crime, moral constraints from crime, and exposure to criminal or deviant peers (Aseltine et al., 2000).
The question raised in regards to this problem in Texas is where murders occur and type of strain is experienced in these areas, if any significant amount. The data from state and federal agencies mentioned in the above section gives us the best answer to the question of where. In terms of real numbers and rates per 100,000, the cities that represent the highest areas with murder are Beaumont, Dallas, and Houston (Texas Department of Public Safety, 2018; UCR, 2019). These three cities fill be focused on to examine the prevalence and degree of strain that could cause the elevated murder rates.
As stated previously, the first type of strain occurs when an individual fails or is unable to achieve their goals. Coincidentally, the data has shown that arguing over money or property is the largest subset of the most common circumstance surrounding murder—arguments (Texas Department of Public Safety, 2018). It is very likely that strain over financial goals or stability is a significant factor that could potentially lead to murder. This would definitely explain the high murder rates in Beaumont, Dallas, and Houston, where the percentage of persons in poverty is higher than the statewide percentage (Census, 2019). Furthermore, the three cities’ high percentage of persons without health insurance compared to statewide percentage could cause the fist type of strain, as well as the third (Census, 2019). The third type of strain, introduction of negative stimuli, could occur when a serious illness leads to a constant source of stress, given they do not have health insurance or other means to deal with the negative experience.
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Routine activities theory. Routine activities theory explains how changes or patterns of social interactions affect crime rates, particularly predatory crimes (Boetig, 2006). There are three main components that play a crucial role in the commission of a predatory crime, such as murder. These three components include—motivated offenders, suitable targets, and the absence of capable guardians.
General strain theory explains why there are motivated offenders and the response of individuals faced with strain. Routine activities theory explains how strained individuals come to commit murder. Motivated offenders who have the willingness and ability to commit crime will select their targets upon perceived value and accessibility (Boetig, 2006). The degree of perceived value and accessibility provides the information for an offender to decide whether the target is a suitable target. Finally, the absence of suitable targets facilitates the commission of the crime. Generally, suitable targets are law enforcement officers or commissioned security guards, however, guardians can be varied. Capable guardians can include normal citizen routine, bystanders that may interfere, even alarm security systems, security cameras, or any other person or object that affect the suitability of the target (Boetig, 2006; Sampson & Dunham, 2010). Sampson & Dunham (2010) extends the scope of capable guardians to include “managers” or owners of places or those who are representatives of the owners. Those who have a stake in the safety and efficiency of a business will most likely organize the physical environment and social interaction to avoid conflict.
As stated, the strains that individuals are subject to, provide motivated offenders in the three cities with the highest murder rates. Additionally, these three cities are mostly urban and provide a sufficient number of suitable targets. Not only can general strain theory explain how potential offenders become motivated, but they could also explain how potential victims become suitable targets. For example, individuals strained by their failure or inability to achieve financial goals could react with unconventional or illegal means to achieve their financial goals. This could then lead to arguments over money or property, a significant circumstance surrounding murder. Additionally, the most common type of attack (the second most common circumstance surrounding murder) is gang killings, in which the victims are engaged in these deviant behaviors. Participating in gang related crimes could be delinquent coping factors in response to strain (Aseltine, Gore, & Gordon, 2000; Baron, 2004; Mazerolle & Piquero, 1997).
Based on the explanation of the murder rates offered by the general strain theory and the routine activities theory there are possible policy implications. The following policy implications are thought to be the most realistic and specific based on the available data and research on the most applicable criminology theories.
Addressing poverty and the economy. Given that the data previously mentioned showed poverty rates in the three high murder rate cities higher than the statewide rate, addressing poverty and the economy is important. This policy implication represents a long-term goal that could mitigate the strain on individuals that leads them to become motivated offenders. The most common circumstances of murder involve financial instability or the illegal innovations to solve their financial problems. Policies that will revamp the economy and alleviate financial strain altogether could potentially reduce the number of motivated offenders in the long run. Additionally, it would be beneficial to research policies aimed at reducing the homeless populations that are a characteristic of big cities. The homeless populations represent potential motivated offenders and suitable targets engaging in arguments and attacks.
Providing access to nondelinquent coping mechanisms. It is obviously not possible to erase all types of strain from our lives. The coping mechanisms characterized as nondelinquent by general strain theory could have a significant long-term and short-term effect on crime and ultimately, murder. As stated previously, nondelinquent coping involve social support groups, intelligence, positive values, and self-esteem. These coping mechanisms should be incorporated into policies as short-term solutions throughout the state. Possibly the most important of these are social support groups, since they serve multiple purposes. These groups can promote positive values, collective efficacy, and even create a capable guardian through group vigilance. Funding for community support groups for those in need, church groups, after school programs, and programs assisting with finding employment. If these nondelinquent coping mechanisms are successful, delinquent coping, such as drug use will not be necessary. In the long term, lower rates of drug use could reduce violent attacks, arguments over money, and gang activity.
After school programs that work with youth in order to keep them away from gangs have been already implemented in location throughout the United States. These programs should be expanded and improved further as a long-term solution, especially in inner city districts. Any other policies suggested by further research aimed to combat these things could reduce murder rates.
Increasing capable guardians. The potential policies that are suggested in this section are all considered immediate solutions. Increased policing in the three cities that this study focuses on would also lower murder rates. The goal is not to stop murders directly through policing, since there is not much evidence that this would happen. The goal of increased policing is to intervene in the circumstances leading to murder—preventing through strong presence and responding quickly to arguments in public, businesses and homes, violent attacks, and gang related activity. Training in de-escalation of such events and a positive relationship with the community would mitigate the absence of capable guardians.
As mentioned before, law enforcement officers are not the only form of capable guardians. Policies that organize other types of guardians would be beneficial. Cameras and floodlights in parking lots and any zones known for the prevalence of deviant and criminal behaviors. Additionally, organizing neighborhood or community watches, as well as the new smart phone applications to report suspicious behavior to neighborhoods, would also mitigate the absence of capable guardians.
The state of Texas has had a significant increase in murders in the past decade. Most murders occur in cities between males, of ages 20-24. Additionally, most occur during arguments and violent attacks between strangers. This paper used the general strain theory and the routine activities theory to jointly provide an explanation of the murder problem in Texas. Given the available data and a logical application of the concepts of the theory, several short term and long-term policies implications were suggested. Further research into the efficiency and effectiveness of these suggestions and others would definitely be necessary before actual policies are to be implemented.
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