Messenger - Vol. 1, No. 2, Page 29
Winter 1992
EAR to the street
     Sometimes he was terrified to go to work. His car had been stolen
and vandalized. His office had been ransacked, and his staff members
were fearful that they would be robbed, or worse. But for more than a
year, Leon Pettiway continued his research in an inconspicuous,
steel-doored, rowhouse office in a crime-ridden South Philadelphia
neighborhood. Pettiway, an associate professor of criminal justice at
the University of Delaware, is coordinator of a $1.1 million,
federally funded research project examining drug-induced criminal
behavior. As head of the "Urban Lifestyles Project," Pettiway
interacted with criminals almost daily.
     Two of his research subjects are women. They are in love with
each other. Both are black and strung out on cocaine. One is petite
and soft-spoken. The other is bigger and a bit more fiesty. They live
together in an abandoned South Philadelphia rowhouse-one of hundreds
throughout the city nicknamed "abandominiums." The women support
themselves and their drug habits by committing crimes. Sometimes they
rob and beat men who come searching for sex.
     Then there's the college-educated white man who roams the
Philadelphia suburbs, looking for a good "hit"-something very
expensive to steal. He prefers luxury cars. He's addicted to a life of
stealing. For some reason, he gets "high" from grand-larceny.
     Another of Pettiway's research subjects is a working-class, white
woman who "gets off" on just about any drug. Her preference is heroin,
but she's also addicted to "downers" and "uppers." She's able to get
drugs because she knows doctors who will write phony prescriptions for
her. Her knowledge of how the drugs interact competes with a
     And then there's the AIDS-infected black man who lives on the
streets of downtown Philly. To support his alcohol dependency and
"crack" habit, he steals cameras and other items from the cars of
tourists who visit the city's historic sites. He chips off a piece of
a sparkplug tip and tosses it at car windows. Like magic, the particle
silently shatters them.
     Shunning all contact with police authorities, Pettiway and his
staff confidentially interviewed almost 500 criminals in the
Philadelphia metropolitan area for more than a year. Most are hooked
on drugs, but a smaller control group is not. Some are pimps and
prostitutes. Others are burglars, con artists and drug pushers. Many
resort to petty thefts and armed robbery. A few choose to victimize
other criminals. Most have been victims of child abuse and neglect.
They are often the unemployed and homeless. But a sizeable percentage
live with and hail from middle-class families. Some of the criminals
are college-educated.
     The implications of Pettiway's study are far-reaching, since it
examines, in microscopic detail, the life histories and current
lifestyles of those who rely on crime to support their drug habits.
Eventually, the findings may influence how authorities perceive the
effect of incarceration as punishment, versus the need for
rehabilitation and early-intervention counseling programs. The
research should also paint a clearer picture of how people from
different ethnic and social backgrounds react to socio-economic
pressures. The drug-reliant criminals' perception of society, from
parents and siblings, to peers and healthcare workers, may help
counselors devise more effective treatment programs. The Urban
Lifestyles Project is delving into the minds of those who live, and
often die, in a domain where they feel compelled to use mind-altering
drugs and resort to crime.
     Pettiway's study comes at a time when fellow professors in the
University's criminal justice program are conducting closely related
research, which also is funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse
(NIDA). James A. Inciardi, director of the new Center for Drug and
Alcohol Studies in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice,
is administering a $4.2 million program that provides community-based,
drug-abuse treatment and AIDS-prevention education to Delaware
parolees. Inciardi also is coordinating a $4.8 million
therapeutic-community, work-release program that gives prison inmates
drug-dependency counseling, while encouraging them to acquire job
     The broad scope of the studies being conducted by University
researchers reflects the intense national and local concern over
skyrocketing crime rates fueled by drug addiction. A report issued by
the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Joseph Biden,
D-Delaware, estimates that there are "6 million hard-core drug
addicts" in America, including 2.4 million cocaine addicts and 940,000
heroin addicts.
     In Philadelphia's third police district, where Pettiway's field
office was located, crime has increased by a phenomenal 47.5 percent
since 1985. The district's high crime and addiction rates were primary
reasons Pettiway chose to open an office there. Furthermore, the
area's residents include large, segregated pockets of blacks and
whites. Pettiway's comparative analysis of crime in the area may help
explain why blacks are far more likely to become victims of violent
crime. Researchers have already found that economics, family structure
and self-esteem are primary predictors.
     Instead of relying on analysis of anecdotal evidence, Pettiway
and his staff compiled sophisticated computer data bases to use in
looking for patterns of criminal behavior among drug addicts.
     Field personnel went to some of the city's most undesirable
locations, including crack houses, where they handed out fliers
soliciting research subjects. An offer of $15 for a confidential
interview left no shortage of respondents.
     Once the respondents reported to the office, the intake
interviewers conducted initial conferences and provided
questionnaires. Those accepted were scheduled for a series of
interviews where hundreds of questions about daily routines were
posed. The replies were later categorized and entered into computer
data banks for analysis, a process that is now underway.
     "When they came in for the first interview, they answered
questions concerning their social-demographic background, where they
live, where they've been sleeping and travel information," Pettiway
says. "We completed a chronological log of activities for the entire
day, starting from the time they woke up until the time they went to
     Eventually, the researchers completed a clear picture of daily
routines, such as where respondents go to "cop" or buy drugs, whether
they've been criminally molested, and the kinds of crimes they've
committed. They also examined health habits, and some respondents
returned for extensive life-history interviews.
     Some of the most fascinating information comes from comparing the
drug-taking habits of different ethnic groups, says Bernard Bryant, a
project interviewer. "A lot of blacks take marijuana, cocaine or
crack," says Bryant. "Whites don't use as much cocaine. They're more
into pills, heroin and even methadone."
     Pettiway concurs. "The drug use is very different. Whites use a
tremendous amount of pills in combination with hard drugs."
     Blacks, however, will ingest pills if they socialize with whites
who are into that form of addiction, Bryant says.
     Despite their different drug-addiction patterns, whites and
blacks, in general, commit the same kinds of crimes, Pettiway says.
"They do some robberies, burglaries, theft and a lot of prostitution."
     Since his research began, Pettiway says he has attended church
regularly and consulted with his priest for spiritual guidance. The
horrible stories and pain he chronicles sometimes take a heavy toll.
     "You cannot work with the poor and not be touched by them. You
cannot listen to someone who has been physically and sexually abused
as a child and listen to how they endure-and not be touched by that.
You are changed by it," Pettiway says.
     -Donald Scott