Labeling, Law, and America's Drug Policy

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Labeling theorists explore how and why certain acts are defined as criminal or deviant and why other such acts are not. As such, they also who is identified as a criminal, and who is not. They question how and why certain people become defined as criminal or deviant. Such theorists view criminals not as evil people who engage in wrong acts but as individuals who have a criminal status forced upon them by both the criminal justice system and the community at large. From this point of view, criminal acts themselves are not significant; it is the reactions of the rest of society to acts defined as criminal that are most crucial. Crime and its control involve a process of social definition, which involves a response from others to an individual's behavior. The external response is crucial to how an individual views himself. According to Sociologist Howard S. Becker (1963) "Deviance is not a quality of the act the person commits, but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an offender. The deviant is one to whom that label has successfully been applied; deviant behavior is behavior that people so label."

Labeling theory focuses on the reactions of other people and the consequent results of those reactions. A person who is exposed to have engaged in deviant acts is shunned from society and labeled, "prostitute," "crook," "addict," "molester," and so on. According to Becker, this process creates a group of "outsiders", who then begin to associate with other outcasts. When more and more people begin to think of these individuals as deviants, they respond to them as such; thus the deviant reacts to such a response by continuing to engage in the behavior society now expects from them. In this pape...

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