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

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

135 Scopus citations


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 the average citizen obeys the law, we do not have similar knowledge about populations most likely to commit serious violent crimes. This study fills that void by using a unique survey of active offenders called the Chicago Gun Project (CGP). The CGP was designed to understand how the social networks of offenders influence their perceptions of the law and subsequent law-violating behavior. The findings suggest that while criminals as a whole have negative opinions of the law and legal authority, these offenders 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 with 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 legitimate forms of authority. In contrast, those individuals (including gang members) with less saturated networks actually tend to have more positive opinions of the law.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)397-440
Number of pages44
JournalJournal of Criminal Law and Criminology
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2012

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Law


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