Sample Research Paper on Sociology: Guilt and Criminalization by Association


An expository essay investigates an idea or an issue and then presents an argument supported by evidence. This expository essay expounds on the issue of the hypercriminalization of Black and Latinx youth, which leads to a myriad of issues putting them at a disadvantage. 

The criminal justice system in the US is riddled with racial injustice. Apart from having the highest incarceration rate in the world, reports show that Black and Latinx people are disproportionately affected by mass incarceration rate (Nellis, 2021). What is even more troubling is that his phenomenon is not confined to adults. Black and Latinx youth are also disproportionately confined (Rios, 2007, p. 18; Prison Policy Initiative, n.d.). According to the Labeling Theory, being labeled as a deviant or a criminal as a child results in stigmatization and a self-fulfilling prophecy that ultimately pushes youths toward crime. In addition to the myriad of issues and struggles faced by Black and Latinx youths, they are also weighed down by hypercriminalization both in the streets and in school settings due to guilt and criminalization by association. 

Apart from the evident systemic racism fueling these racially disproportionate incarceration rates, this phenomenon has a debilitating impact on Black and Latinx communities and their families. As a result of mass incarceration, Black and Latinx children grow up in broken families or with absent parents, which also often coincides with low income and stigma. Families of incarcerated individuals, thus, may live in low-income neighborhoods with high levels of unemployment, poor educational opportunities, and at times, high crime rates (Smyton, 2020). However, these are not the only issues Black and Latinx youth face, because many of them also face hypercriminalization due to guilt and criminalization by association. This expository essay examines the ways Black and Latinx youth are hypercriminalized and how the added burden of hypercriminalization leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy that drives the youth to crime, leading to high incarceration rates and poorer educational outcomes. 

Labeling Theory

Labeling theory attempts to explain the process of developing deviant behavior in individuals. The theory asserts that publicly labeling an individual a deviant is the crucial trigger for their involvement in deviant behavior and the behavior becoming a social problem (Rocheleau and Chavez 2014). According to Labeling theorists, the psychological, cultural, and social contexts in which the individual moves after they engaged in deviant behavior initiate a change in the individual’s self-identity (Rocheleau and Chavez 2014). Thus, if an individual is labeled deviant, it will encourage involvement in deviant activity and networks. The impact of the social response on the individual is so strong that it is a stronger predictor of further deviance than the initial deviant behavior itself (Rocheleau and Chavez 2014). However, this social response is not an instantial occurrence but a cyclical process that includes: “(1) committing a deviant act, (2) applying a deviant label, (3) being cut off from society (i.e., incarceration), (4) developing a more salient deviant identity, (5) becoming further entrenched in an organized deviant group, (6) committing another deviant act, (7) creating another opportunity for repetition of the cycle” (Rocheleau and Chavez, 2014, 5) (see the difference between quoting, paraphrasing, and summarizing ). As explained by the theory, being labeled a deviant has effects not just on the individual’s sense of self but also on their educational attainment and employment outcomes. Such is the issue that makes restorative justice complicated and, consequently, the social reintegration of former offenders difficult.

Uggen (2016) places a focus on the “stickiness” of the deviant label which does not correspond with the “fluidity” of an individual’s deviant behavior. The researcher cites the distribution of arrests in the US by age group, which shows that the highest arrests are of youths aged 15 to 19, and then begin to decline from age 20 onwards. The data demonstrate that people eventually leave behind deviant behavior and transition into law-abiding members of society as they mature. Despite this, a former offender, regardless of the severity of their case, struggles to move past their conviction. Uggen found that those who were arrested, even if not convicted, were less likely to receive a callback from potential employers if the employers were aware (Uggen, 2016, p. 3). The severity of the stigma against arrests is even stronger among blacks (Uggen, 2016, p. 3). This phenomenon aligns with being cut off from society—even after release from jail, ex-offenders are isolated from society, prevented from participating in the most basic activities like employment—which further forces them into committing another deviant act, thereby pushing them into a cycle of recidivism

The Hypercriminalization of Black And Latinx Youths

It is common knowledge that youths of color are not exempted from racial discrimination, and one of the many manifestations of racism today is hypercriminalization. Black and Latinx youths are often criticized in schools. Many teachers operate with low expectations of Black and Latinx students and expect them to exhibit behavioral problems, which lead to unfair discipline practices (Noguera and Alicea, 2020). These are not simple matters of “ my teacher doesn’t like me, help ,” but an underlying bias against students of color. Such punitive treatment of youths of color is so common that it is now referred to as the “school-to-prison pipeline,” which signifies the positive association between disproportionate punishment in school with arrest prevalence, detention, formal processing, and institutionalization for probation violations (Beneby, Glenn, and Taylor, 2020). According to Rios (cited in Beneby, Glenn, and Taylor, 2020), non-criminal justice institutions, such as schools, encourage the pre-emptive criminalization, punishment, and control of boys. Rios’s study demonstrated that boys were often referred to as “thugs,” were always suspected of wrongdoing, and often harassed for activities that their white counterparts would not have been in trouble for. While Rios defended that authority figures often had good intentions in attempting to discipline the boys, their implicit bias leads to disproportionate reactions and punishments to youths of color (cited in Beneby, Glenn, and Taylor, 2020). While these authority figures may not necessarily be racist, structural racism has placed these youths at a disadvantageous, vulnerable position to hypercriminalization.

Racialized communities, where the majority of residents are people of color, experience higher crime rates, poverty, lower quality of education, as well as over-policing in terms of surveillance and social control (Smyton, 2020). These aspects in which Black and Latinx youths are forced to live in are the major elements of structural racism that, as mentioned, contribute to their hypercriminalization. In some cases, hypercriminalization is the product of stereotyping wherein authority figures assume that Black and Latinx boys are engaging in criminal behavior even when they are not exhibiting suspicious behavior. 

With consistent deviant labeling, Black and Latinx youth are likely to internalize such labels and alter their self-concept (Beneby, Glenn, and Taylor, 2020). Whether consciously or unconsciously, they are likely to adopt or embrace such a label. Furthermore, such labels, whether formal or informal, are bound to have a negative impact on the individual’s reputation, making it difficult to find jobs, which as mentioned, may encourage criminal activities. Some of the boys interviewed by Rios cite informal deviance labeling, such as by storekeepers, which has led them to engage in theft out of spite (Rios, 2007). Some have said that educators’ bias and punitive attitude toward them have discouraged school attendance (Rios, 2007). It has, therefore, led to formal deviant labeling, which triggers the cycle of crime.  

Likewise, the structural racism in their communities has made Black and Latinx youths feel helpless. They may see their families become victims of crimes that they may perceive can be prevented only by engaging in criminal activity, as is the case with some of the boys in Rios’s study. Although these youths do not intend on doing criminal activities, their environment pushes them toward deviant behavior, which as the labeling theory predicts would happen. 

The Impact of Hypercriminalization on Black And Latinx Youth

The label “criminal” is a sticky label that cannot be easily removed (Uggen, 2016). Individuals who have had contact with the criminal justice system find that their records affect their chances of getting a job. The same applies to youths who are labeled deviants. Even before they do anything “wrong,” teachers or other authority figures at school assume that they are doing something wrong and may, thus, punish them for such. Such attitudes become an additional burden that not only prevents Black and Latinx youths from performing well at school but also discourages them from attending at all. Poor school outcomes bring about a myriad of struggles that compounds the demographic’s experience. The deviant label may, for instance, follow the youths after school as they attempt to find jobs since failure to graduate high school is often seen as a sign of deviance. Such an impact may permeate into the youth’s life well into adulthood, making it difficult for them to find a career path.

A more salient impact of hypercriminalization is how it increases the chances of a child or teen engaging in criminal behavior and, therefore, being incarcerated, which in turn feeds into the cycle of stereotyping and hypercriminalization. As the labeling theory suggests, youths who are labeled as deviants have a higher chance of following a self-fulfilling prophecy that leads to incarceration and, potentially, reincarceration. 

The impact of the hypercriminalization of Black and Latinx youths does not only affect them as individuals. For one, it affects the entire community as it confirms the stereotype of Black and Latinx youths as deviant so that many are politically socialized to believe these. Second, it also impacts their families. If these youths have children while still struggling with hypercriminalization or, even, recidivism, their children may face the brunt of having one incarcerated parent. Children with incarcerated parents often have to struggle with the same stigma and deviant label their parents struggle with, as well as other stereotypes about their intelligence (Hollins, 2019). While these labels do not necessarily apply to these children, they will likely create a barrier to success. 


Black and Latinx youths not only experience racism and structural racism but, as a result of these, are also labeled as deviants from an early age. Being labeled a deviant from a young age has been theorized and proven to have a negative impact on Black and Latinx youths. It alters their sense of self, eventually internalizing the belief that they are, indeed, deviants. Additionally, being labeled a deviant in school discourages school attendance and then encourages criminal behavior. Such attitude toward these youths fails to take into account the various struggles they may already face, such as poverty. Further, their hypercriminalization has been found to be a major contributor to the high incarceration rates of these youths. Hypercriminalization is an unnecessary burden that further compounds the issues that already serve as barriers to success for youths of color. 


Beneby, D. R., Glenn, J. W., & Taylor, L. C. (2020). An assessment of the hypercriminalization thesis: Evidence from juvenile justice and human service practitioners in the USA. Journal of Applied Youth Studies, 3, 167-189.   

Hollins, W. Q. (2019). Guilty by association: A critical analysis of how imprisonment affects the children of those behind bars [Doctoral dissertation, City University of New York]. CUNY Academic Works. 

Nellis, A. (2021, October 31). The color of justice: Racial and ethnic disparity in state prisons. The Sentencing Project. 

Prison Policy Initiative. (n.d.). United States profile. 

Rios, V. M. (2007). The hypercriminalization of black and Latino male youth in the era of mass incarceration. Racializing justice, disenfranchising lives: the racism, criminal justice, and law reader (pp. 17-33). Palgrave Macmillan. 

Rocheleau, G. C. & Chavez, J. M. (2014). Guilt by association: The relationship between deviant peers and deviant labels. CORE. 

Smyton, R. (2020, June 17). How racial segregation and policing intersect in America. Tufts Now.  

Uggen, C. (2016). Crime, punishment, and American inequality. Institute for Research on Poverty, 32(2). 

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