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Crime Theories. “Can’t Catch a Break” by Sered & Norton-Hawk

The present paper is dedicated to the book Can’t Catch a Break by Sered and Norton-Hawk (2014). Both authors are Professors of Sociology at Suffolk University in Boston. Susan Starr Sered focuses on women’s rights, and Maureen Norton-Hawk has a special interest in criminology (University of California 2014). Their fields of expertise allowed them to investigate the topic of the experiences of formerly incarcerated women from the perspective of the intersections of various social systems that lead to the oppression of vulnerable populations. The book is the result of a five-year-long study that involved Sered and Norton-Hawk (2014) investigating the lives of forty-seven formerly incarcerated women. In this paper, the book will be summarized and analyzed with the help of three crime theories. The theories will be used to uncover and frame the book’s key themes while also making commentary on the origins of crime exemplified by the cases presented by Sered and Norton-Hawk (2014).

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Book Summary

Sered and Norton-Hawk (2014) dedicate their book to the issues that appear to have led to the criminalized behavior of forty-seven women who participated in their study. The authors recruited their sample at Boston, MA, and they managed to keep in contact with thirty-two of the women throughout their research. The method consisted of informal and structured interviews; the former took place at least once a month, and the latter would be carried out every three months over five years. Having gathered enough data, the authors framed their findings with the help of additional research on the topic.

The book has eight chapters, each of which is introduced through a discussion of a particular case of a woman and supplemented with other cases, as well as a summary of the literature on the topic. The chapters can be dedicated to sexism, racism, homelessness, addiction, medical and mental issues, the problem of custody, and the difficulties that women experience in jails. However, most often, the cases described in the book can be used to illustrate more or less every of the referenced concerns.

Among other things, the authors are also critical of the way American society conceptualizes crime and marginalization. They highlight the impact of outside factors, particularly institutionalized oppression, on criminal or criminalized behavior. These observations are well-supported by modern research, which shows that people of color or people with various mental disorders are more likely to experience incarceration (Al-Rousan et al. 2017; Wildeman and Wang 2017). Thus, the findings of Sered and Norton-Hawk (2014) remain relevant even nowadays.

The authors follow the lives of marginalized women to demonstrate how victimization, marginalization, and oppression tend to trap women in poverty, homelessness, and illness. From this perspective, incarceration (typically for minor crimes or drug possession) is both a consequence of marginalization and the factor that further contributes to it. Still, a focus on the causes of incarceration is present in the book, which opens an opportunity for applying various theories of the origin of crime to the described cases.

Akers’ Social Learning Theory

Social learning theory (SLT) considers the external factors which contribute to the origin of crime. In general terms, SLT suggests that criminal behaviors are learned through the support of particular role models by a specific society (Lanier, Henry, and Anastasia 2018; Shoemaker 2018). The idea is that by imitating observed behaviors, people may become involved in criminal activity in case such behaviors receive reinforcement; they are particularly likely to hold in the sociocultural environment that supports such reinforcement.

Given the dysfunctional childhood described in the cases of the women, the book is filled with examples of behaviors that the women and the people around them have learned from their society. A very prominent one is gendered violence and attitudes toward it. As explained by one of the women from the study, it is not unlikely that her husband hit her because his father used to do the same to his mother. As shown by Francesca, people learn to blame the victim or the bystander (her mother who did not protect her from abuse) and absolve the perpetrator (her father who also did not protect her and her brother who, as the parents knew, raped her) since childhood. This pattern of victim-blaming can be viewed as a method of reinforcement that affects the relationships between genders and beliefs about gender roles for multiple generations.

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Similarly, many of the women reported alcohol and other addictions to their parents, which may have normalized this behavior in their eyes. Given that many of them have been incarcerated for public drunkenness, this factor may have directly contributed to what is currently perceived as criminal behavior. Another example of internalized gender promoting crime is shown through the case of Ginger who is a transwoman and used to see sex work as a means of asserting her gender identity. Admittedly, the financial issues also contributed to her behavior, but apart from that, the ideas about gender relationships affected her choices. Given that sex work is currently criminalized, she has been arrested for it. Thus, even though the authors of the book do not focus on SLT, they still have provided the data on the cases which can be used to illustrate this idea and use it to explain the origin of certain crimes.

Labeling Theory

The basic idea of labeling theory (LT) is concerned with the impact of labels on human behavior. LT suggests that when a particular label is attached to a person along with the related stigma, they might internalize it, incorporate it into their self-image, and start behaving in the ways which correspond to it (Shoemaker, 2018). Shoemaker (2018) stresses that the idea that labels are the primary cause of behaviors is simplistic, but research does indicate that labels have an impact on human delinquency. In other words, the effects of labels are most likely subtle, but they have been evidenced.

Sered and Norton-Hawk (2014) comment on labeling multiple times directly and indirectly. A general example that is present early in the book refers to the way the focus on the internal contributors to crime and their medicalization and criminalization results in labeling certain conditions or behaviors with negative terms. According to Sered and Norton-Hawk (2014), women internalize these perspectives; they also focus on themselves as the source of their problems while completely failing to recognize the contribution of societal structures to them.

Elizabeth, for example, uses the label “whack job” to explain her medical problems; her story also discusses the negative attributes related to the label of “needy,” which refers to the people who need assistance (Sered and Norton-Hawk 2014: 40, 45). These labels are forced onto the women; as shown through Elizabeth’s case, they might even have to prove themselves to be needed to survive (for example, by receiving welfare), but they can also resist them (the way Elizabeth refuses to be called homeless). Sered and Norton-Hawk (2014) point out that none of these labels define a crime, but the women are penalized for them nonetheless; they are treated with suspicion for being “welfare queens,” they are blamed for becoming victims, and they are incarcerated for crimes like public drunkenness, which is the direct result of being homeless or ill.

In addition, it should be noted that labeling is commonly associated with stereotyping (Shoemaker 2018). Sered and Norton-Hawk (2014) focus on the institutional oppression and negative beliefs perpetuated by them and criticize the focus on the perpetrator and victim in the analysis of a crime. In Francesca’s chapter, they note the problem of sexism and its impact on the lives of women; the issue of racial disparity (and its intersections with sexism) is covered by Anasia’s story, and more or less every case can be used to exemplify economic inequality. These systems of oppression are associated with prejudice exhibited by the people around the women and internalized by the women themselves. Here, the case of Ginger is noteworthy: for her, the negative labels associated with femininity seem to be another method of reinforcing her gender. In particular, the authors report here using the word “ho” to describe herself without apparent distress (Sered and Norton-Hawk 2014: 74). Given that Ginger got involved in sex work, which is criminalized, this example can demonstrate ways in which labels might contribute to criminal behavior, illustrating LT.

Clarke Rational Choice Theory

The rational choice theory (RCT) is one of the classic approaches to explaining crime. The basic premise of this theory is that humans are reasonable actors, which means that criminals reasonably choose their behavior based on their self-interest (Lanier et al. 2018; Shoemaker 2018). Basically, according to RCT, a person chooses to commit a crime when it benefits them and chooses not to commit a crime when the price (for example, punishment) is greater than the anticipated benefit. Lanier et al. (2018) point out that rationality as suggested in RCT is not pure or absolute; rather, it is relative rationality, and RCT does not imply that humans are completely rational beings. However, RCT focuses on this rationality and the decision-making process of a criminal. Shoemaker (2018) highlights the importance of applying the theory to adults and points out that the concept is rather simplistic. This perspective also directly contradicts the ideas of the book.

Indeed, Sered and Norton-Hawk (2014) make comments which indicate that they are not exactly in favor of RCT. At the very least, they comment on how this idea (possibly, taken to the extreme) may have further complicated the situations of the participants of their study. According to Sered and Norton-Hawk (2014), the idea of personal responsibility is common for the US, possibly, as an extension of the American Dream. Consequently, it is also typical to blame people for their misfortune, and victim-blaming is not good for the psychological well-being of a human. As a result, Sered and Norton-Hawk (2014) suggest that the women from their study were further victimized by such attitudes and further discriminated against based on whether their problems were considered their fault or not. The authors do note that they do not want to remove the women’s agency completely, but the use of RCT to explain the events in the lives of the participants would probably not be supported by Sered and Norton-Hawk (2014).

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The cases from the book show that the act of breaking the law is not always fully under the control of a person. Many of the women from the study were incarcerated either for drug possession or public drunkenness. These violations indicate substance abuse problems (that is, mental health issues) rather than any rational choice to break the law. Moreover, the decision to turn to drugs and alcohol also is not always rational; for example, Francesca and Isabella got addicted to their medication. The use of RCT to explain such crimes is unlikely to yield positive results.

Furthermore, Sered and Norton-Hawk (2014) highlight the intersecting institutional oppression that had contributed to the women’s experiences. Prejudice against mental illness, people in need of governmental assistance, racism, sexism, and transphobia all resulted in the women becoming marginalized and impoverished. In turn, impoverishment results in homelessness, which is also a factor that contributes to criminalized behavior. For example, as pointed out by Sered and Norton-Hawk (2014), public drunkenness is essential “a function of being homeless” (p. 50), and many of the women were incarcerated for it, for example, Elizabeth. RCT does not take into account these factors which tend to eliminate choices, preventing people from making a rational one.

Many women do comment on their responsibility; for example, Anasia denies the impact of racism on her life, and Elizabeth blames herself for being a “whack job” (Sered and Norton-Hawk 2014: 56). However, it is apparent that a person does not choose to live in a sexist, racist, transphobic environment, and they do not have a meaningful alternative. Many of the women suffer from the consequences of trauma received as children; some end up being homeless because they tried to escape abusive households. Criminal records make them unable to get a job or housing, trapping them in poverty and homelessness, ensuring the perpetuation of criminal behavior-promoting factors.

RCT is a major and long-standing theory, and it can explain at least some criminal behaviors. The idea that the possibility of punishment can deter many people from breaking the law may not be fully supported by evidence (Lanier et al. 2018; Shoemaker 2018). However, there exists research that suggests that the benefits of self-reporting a crime may be helpful (Shoemaker 2018: 17-18). In addition, the investigation of the decision-making process of perpetrators can be helpful (Lanier et al. 2018). In other words, despite its simplicity, RCT is not without merit.

However, the book by Sered and Norton-Hawk (2014) demonstrates the fact that this theory is not sufficient; it cannot explain all of the human behavior, and its focus on the perpetrator’s thought process leaves out very important external factors that contribute to criminal activity. As a result, the application of RCT to the book is useful since it helps to understand one of the key themes expressed by Sered and Norton-Hawk (2014), even though it directly contradicts RCT: people are not always rational and do not always have a meaningful choice.

Conclusions: Using the Theories to Analyze the Book

The application of different and even contradicting theories to the book’s cases shows that none of them is truly enough to explain criminal behavior. Some of them might be good at demonstrating certain factors that contribute to specific crimes, and certain cases might be covered by a particular theory. However, most often, various combinations of theories are more likely to be able to explain the origins of crime. Sered and Norton-Hawk (2014) seem to focus on this fact; the primary theme of the book is how multiple negative events, as well as particular sociocultural phenomena, contribute to the behaviors that modern society labels as criminal ones. The authors highlight the interaction of trauma and illness with negative beliefs perpetuated by society and various systems of oppression in the promotion of behaviors that eventually lead women to incarceration. Given the complexity of each case, using just one theory to explain them is reductive. However, the same fact means that most of the stories can be used to exemplify the key concepts of different theories.

In the case of RCT, the book mostly contradicts it. However, its application to this study is a good choice specifically because of this contradiction. Labeling and social learning theories explain some of the behaviors examined in the book, but RCT helps to discover its primary message which consists of the importance of multiple and predominantly external factors in perpetuating crime. Thus, by reviewing the contents of the book and comparing and contrasting it with the three theories, one can examine the key concepts of both the book and the theories.


Al-Rousan, Tala, Linda Rubenstein, Bruce Sieleni, Harbans Deol, and Robert B. Wallace. 2017. “Inside the Nation’s Largest Mental Health Institution: A Prevalence Study in a State Prison System.” BMC Public Health 17(1):1-9.

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Lanier, Mark, Stuart Henry, and Desiré J. M. Anastasia. 2018. Essential Criminology. 4th ed. New York, NY: Routledge.

Sered, Susan Starr, and Maureen Norton-Hawk. 2014. Can’t Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, Drugs, and the Limits of Personal Responsibility. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

Shoemaker, Donald J. 2018. Theories of Delinquency. 7th ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

University of California. 2014. “Can’t Catch a Break.” Web.

Wildeman, Christopher, and Emily A. Wang. 2017. “Mass Incarceration, Public Health, And Widening Inequality in the USA.” The Lancet 389(10077):1464-1474.

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