Danger and the decision to offend

Bill Mccarthy*, John L Hagan

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

47 Scopus citations


Humiliation; incarceration; stigma; loss of income, freedom, and respect: most research on offending emphasizes these sanctions. Yet classical theorists recognized other costs including physical harm. We revive this abandoned insight, arguing that danger - the possibility of pain - figures largely in people's decisions to offend. Although modern states typically eschew violence, many victims, vigilantes, and others assault offenders. This violence is typically more certain, swift, and severe than other sanctions, and fear of injury likely deters many potential offenders. Yet the possibility of pain may be irrelevant to individuals who boldly believe in their unassailability. Consistent with our hypotheses, we find that perceptions about danger are significantly associated with involvement in theft, drug selling, and prostitution among homeless youth, and that these effects are independent of perceptions about a crime's excitement, profit, or other returns. Our results suggest that dangers play a key but typically neglected role in the genesis of these crimes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1065-1096
Number of pages32
JournalSocial Forces
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jan 1 2005

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • Anthropology
  • Sociology and Political Science


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