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Ethnographic evidence reveals that many crimes in poor minority neighborhoods evade criminal justice sanctioning, thus leading to a negative association between the proportion of minority residents in a neighborhood and the arrest rate. To explain this finding, we extend recent theoretical explications of the concept of legal cynicism. Legal cynicism refers to a cultural orientation in which the law and the agents of its enforcement are viewed as illegitimate, unresponsive, and ill equipped to ensure public safety. Crime might flourish in neighborhoods characterized by legal cynicism because individuals who view the law as illegitimate are less likely to comply with it; yet because of legal cynicism, these crimes might go unreported and therefore unsanctioned. This study draws on data from the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods to test the importance of legal cynicism for understanding geographic variation in the probability of arrest. We find that, in neighborhoods characterized by high levels of legal cynicism, crimes are much less likely to lead to an arrest than in neighborhoods where citizens view the police more favorably. Findings also reveal that residents of highly cynical neighborhoods are less likely to engage in collective efficacy and that collective efficacy mediates the association between legal cynicism and the probability of arrest.
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Keywords: arrest; collective efficacy; legal cynicism; neighborhood effects; race–ethnic disparities

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Department of SociologyUniversity of Texas at Austin 2: Department of Criminology and Criminal JusticeUniversity of Maryland—College Park

Publication date: 2011-05-01

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