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  • Street Justice: Retaliation in the Criminal Underworld
  • Jeffery T. Ulmer
Street Justice: Retaliation in the Criminal Underworld By Bruce A. Jacobs and Richard Wright Cambridge University Press, 2006. 154 pages. $19.99 (paper)

It has been close to common knowledge among criminologists that violent retaliation, or its threat, is a key mechanism of social control in the worlds of street crime. Those involved in criminal enterprises and street hustles cannot take their disputes to legal authorities, and "muscle" is a key way such criminals try to keep themselves from being the victims of aggression and theft at the hands of other criminals or co-offenders. What is very surprising is that criminal retaliation has been the subject of very little focused study. Bruce Jacobs' previous research shows that drug dealers are especially attractive targets for robbery. Jacobs and Wright's Street Justice: Retaliation in the Criminal Underworld addresses how those in the criminal underworld go about avenging themselves after being robbed, as well as after much lesser transgressions.

Jacobs and Wright interviewed 52 active African-American street offenders from St. Louis, who had been the victim of at least one crime for [End Page 875] which they either retaliated or attempted to do so. The authors do a very good job of justifying the methodological choices they made, and present a useful discussion of the value of qualitative methods for studying "hidden populations" and for uncovering the conduct norms that underpin their behavior and "emergent choices."(9) They also make a convincing case for why studying criminals "in the wild" (9) is preferable to interviewing incarcerated offenders – a more typical strategy.

Jacobs and Wright first describe the economic and social disadvantage and isolation that besets St. Louis' inner city black neighborhoods – disadvantage that is significantly worse than the national average – and notes that St. Louis is perennially at or near the top of major U.S. cities in violent crime rates. It is against this structural backdrop that they then describe the "retaliatory ethic" that characterizes the world of crime in these areas, and its pedagogical, deterrence and expressive purposes. The picture they paint of this street world as an "honor culture" strongly comports with Elijah Anderson's portrayals of the "code of the streets" in urban black ghettos. Threats to one's honor, whether as small as a slight or as large as a drug robbery or "beat down," must be met with severe – preferably disproportionate – retaliation in order to deter future violations, to "teach a lesson" to the adversary, and to protect/enhance one's street credibility and reputation. Not surprisingly, this world is characterized by constant spirals of offense, retaliation and counter-retaliation, with tragic consequences for individuals and the whole community.

In what might be the most empirically interesting contribution of the book, they present a typology of retaliation, and the personal justice rationales and strategic calculations that lie behind the types. Retaliation is first differentiated by whether it is face-to face or not, and then whether it is done immediately or delayed. The types of retaliation thus include: reflexive (immediate, face-to-face), calculated (intentionally delayed, face-to face), deferred (unintentionally delayed, face to face), reflexively displaced (immediate, but displaced to someone not directly responsible for the offense), sneaky (intentionally delayed, similarly displaced to the adversary's property or to a third party), and imperfect (unintentionally delayed, displaced to a third party). The latter type of retaliation merits a chapter of its own, and the authors describe the rationales for imperfect retaliation and the ambivalence it produces. In a chapter coauthored with Christopher Mullins, the authors also show how retaliation is fundamentally gendered, and present a fascinating analysis of men's vs. women's different calculus and tactics of retaliation (including the counterintuitive finding that women are much less likely to use guns, even though guns would seem to equalize differences in size and strength when confronting male adversaries). They conclude [End Page 876] with some policy recommendations to address criminal retaliation, but acknowledge extreme difficulties in doing so.

One limitation of this book, which the authors readily acknowledge, is that this is a circumscribed sample – black offenders from urban contexts of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-7605
Print ISSN
0037-7732
Pages
pp. 875-877
Launched on MUSE
2008-02-11
Open Access
No
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