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Questioning crime: social harms and global issues
Questioning crime: social harms and global issues

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2.3 Criminology and Hurricane Katrina: understanding ‘natural disasters’ through a legalistic approach?

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Figure 4 A police car damaged in Hurricane Katrina. Could the law be used to prosecute ‘state crimes of omission’ rather than to control poorer communities affected by the hurricane?

Legalistic approaches are grounded in the assumptions that the law and criminal justice systems should be used to define crime, determine whether offences have taken place and determine what redress (if any) victims are entitled to (similarly to traditional criminological approaches). It assumes that any government failings can be identified through the criminal justice system and the law can be used to establish any entitlement to compensation. For example, in the case of Hurricane Katrina, much attention was paid to the failure of the levee system in New Orleans, which was supposed to protect the city from flooding, as well as the process of evacuation from the city. John Culhane (2007) has argued that these failures should be understood in terms of negligence on the part of the government and remedied through the provision of compensation in accordance with existing law (this could be through state law or an international law or agreement).

On the other hand, Kelly Faust and David Kauzlarich (2008) suggest that excess victimisation caused by such natural disasters constitute ‘state crimes of omission’. Usually, this is seen as resulting from a failure of government to protect citizens from harms that it has a duty to protect them from, and, in relation to Hurricane Katrina, Faust and Kauzlarich found that significant failures of ‘expected governmental duties to protect life and property, [to] address known and profound hazards to communities, and to responsively and humanely deliver services after catastrophes’, and thus that Hurricane Katrina can be considered a ‘state crime of omission’ (Faust and Kauzlarich, 2008, pp. 86–7, 98).