December 14, 2020

Risk, Crime, and The Military: How Risk-Taking May Impact Outcomes for Soldiers with Criminal Records

Jenny Enos author photoBy Jenny Enos

Sociology Doctoral Student, Rutgers University

Sociologists have long sought to understand what drives people to break rules or laws, both formally (breaking a law upheld by a particular governing structure), and informally (breaking unwritten rules of societies or groups ), or what we refer to as “norms.” Particularly since the 1980s, crime has also become an increasingly prominent issue in U.S. politics with multiple candidates – the latest example being Donald Trump – running on a platform of being “tough on crime.”

A major theoretical approach to understanding criminal behavior frames crime as a form of risk-taking. Under this framework, scholars have argued that people commit crimes in pursuit of excitement or as a way of escaping the mundaneness of everyday life. In an effort to explain why crime is often concentrated in lower-income and marginalized communities, some research taking such an approach reasons that working-class or impoverished individuals may have “boring” lives and little access to socially acceptable outlets for excitement. Of course, such arguments have been criticized for being class-biased and for lacking consideration of how middle-class and even wealthy individuals engage in criminal risk-taking behavior, too. Instead, criminal risk-taking is now mostly considered a personal orientation rather than a class-based characteristic, and risk remains a key component in the study of crime for many scholars.

However, much like any social phenomenon, criminal behavior is not just about personal proclivities. Social structures also shape criminal behavior in important ways. As we might expect, the observably higher crime rates in communities of color compared to predominantly White communities are not the result of White people somehow disinclined to take risks. Rather, crime is often concentrated in economically deprived neighborhoods that have faced disinvestment for decades – which, because of the severe racial segregation plaguing the U.S., tend to be predominantly Black or Latino neighborhoods. As such, criminal behavior can be understood a complex web of social structures interacting with personal orientations toward risk-taking.

In a recently published article in Sociological Forum, authors Eiko Strader and Miranda Hines use data from the U.S. Army to untangle this very issue. Although people with a criminal record face immense barriers in the labor market, the military frequently hires individuals with a criminal history, the military being considered a “second chance” for those who have been incarcerated. Given the theory that criminal behavior involves some level of risk-taking, Strader and Hines ask whether having a criminal record in the military leads to different outcomes in terms of combat exposure and casualties.

They find that soldiers with criminal records are more likely to be assigned to positions with higher combat exposure than those without, and that soldiers with felony convictions are more than twice as likely to die as their counterparts without felony convictions while in non-combat positions. In light of these results, the authors argue that one explanation for this disparity is that soldiers with criminal records may be engaged in more high-risk behavior while on the job. After all, most casualties and injuries in the military are not a result of combat, but rather the result of accidents (e.g. transportation-related) – which may be more likely to happen when individuals engage in risky behavior.

Clearly, these findings importantly demonstrate that the military might not be as productive of a “second chance” for ex-felons as it is thought to be. As the authors point out, an unfair burden is placed on those with criminal records in the military, arguably some of the most vulnerable members of society. Although personal orientations toward risk may indeed impact the outcomes for soldiers with criminal records, several other factors – the stigma associated with criminal behavior, the structural barriers facing individuals with criminal records, to name a few– undoubtedly also play a role in their overrepresentation in combat positions and increasing their casualty rates.

Regardless, this study sheds some interesting light on how individuals navigate risk and how we think about the connections between crime and risk-taking. It also raises important questions about how policy can potentially intervene in this issue. While the answer is not to make it more difficult for people with a criminal record to join the military, since they already have few options in the labor market, we need to find an alternative “second chance” for this vast population that is less precarious and dangerous than the military. Because as it stands now, this funneling of individuals with criminal records into the military is clearly costing lives. 

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