It is usually hard to pinpoint exactly when ideas for a project occur, for they could come at any time, day or night. To the best of my recollection the idea for this web page came sometime in the mid-1990s. My wife had put together a file folder and labeled it "Shelden Says." It was to be a place where I could put commentaries that had been printed in local newspapers in Las Vegas and elsewhere. The idea of "Shelden Says" came about when someone had written a story in a newspaper somewhere and was quoting me, saying something like "Shelden says that....." It became quite a joke around our house, as it sounded like I was some kind of "expert" that people called for an opinion, like someone might say "My broker says..." (borrowing a popular ad for a popular investment firm).
I began to think more seriously about this sometime in the fall of 2003, as I began to consider what I was going to do for the rest of my life. This often happens as we age, of course. I turned 60 in 2003 and soon thereafter purchased a new computer and changed my Internet service. I soon began to use the Internet more and more for ideas about my various writing projects. It did not take long for me to realize that I too could have my own personal web site since so many other colleagues in other parts of the country had their own (I got many ideas and advice from my friend and coauthor Meda Chesney-Lind with the help of her husband, Ian Lind, and some ideas from other colleagues, like Matt Yeager and Mike Males).
What, you may ask, is "Shelden Says" all about? Part of the answer is provided on my mission statement. A more complete answer requires a little background. I need to tell you how I arrived at this point in my career and share with you my own professional perspective on crime and justice.
My early years of training in the academic world were in the discipline of sociology, starting at Memphis State University in 1971 (where I received my Masters Degree) and ending at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale in 1976 (where I received my PhD). During these years I was introduced to a very critical way of viewing the world. A sub-field of sociology known as the "sociology of knowledge" was instrumental in teaching me that "reality" is a "social construction." This view teaches us that there is no such thing as a pure "objective" reality. Rather what is "real" is socially constructed. Taking such a perspective leads quite logically to the development of a "critical" perspective of the world where nothing is taken for granted. This in turn leads one to challenge the world views of human beings, especially those articulated by those in position of power and authority. I recall a baseball coach who taught a class called "Theory of Baseball" (it was one of those one or two credit courses designed for "jocks" like me during my undergraduate years). One time in class he made a statement that has remained with me all these years (this course was taken in 1966). He said that while playing a baseball game "assume nothing." In short, question everything, including whatever those in authority are saying.
An emerging perspective in criminology at the time I began graduate school at Memphis State was known as the "labeling" approach. This approach sort of turned traditional criminology and the sociology of deviance on its head by asking not "why is there crime?" or "why did he do it?" but rather "why are some behaviors labeled as 'deviant' or 'criminal' and not others?" and "why did we react the way we did to this behavior?" and "what are the consequences of such reactions?" In other words, while it is important to examine why someone committed a certain criminal act, it is equally important to examine what is made of an act socially. It is important to examine the way in which society, especially agencies of social control, respond to certain behaviors. This perspective almost naturally led to the discovery that in many cases the way in which the behavior is responded to may actually make matters worse. Thus, we may begin a "self-fulfilling" process whereby in trying to stop the behavior, we may help to perpetuate it.
This way of looking at crime and deviance quite naturally led to a critical examination of agencies of social control, which in turn led to exposing certain methods that may exacerbate the problem. But more crucially, this line of research led many of us to begin to see that agencies of social control - like the police, the courts, prisons, jails, etc. - were bureaucracies that had developed---as bureaucracies do---a vested interest in perpetuating crime. It is obvious that if crime were eliminated or even reduced significantly the very existence of these agencies---and thousands of careers---would be in jeopardy. What occurs, I was to learn, is a process of what sociologist Robert Merton called "goal displacement." This refers to a process whereby the original goal of a bureaucracy (whether it is to reduce crime, cure illnesses, etc.) inevitably becomes of secondary importance---in a word, displaced---by the goal of keeping the bureaucracy alive and well. A current example can be seen in California where a union representing prison guards, and parole and probation officers has been a dominating force in California politics, donating thousands of dollars to political campaigns and to specific pieces of legislation, such as "Three Strikes and You're Out," which, not by accident, has helped expand the prison bureaucracy and many careers.
Over the years my research interest has focused on these and closely related questions. In time such a perspective, I believe, naturally led to an important discovery. I was not the only one, nor the first, to discover that responding to crime was quite a large industry, providing thousands of people careers with good pay and benefits, chance of promotion and numerous other rewards. Researchers began to call this the "crime control industry," also using such terms as the "prison industrial complex" and "criminal justice industrial complex" ---sort of like the "military-industrial complex."
Through the years of my career---which has now spanned the better part of four decades---I began to notice that no matter what was tried in an attempt to reduce crime and delinquency, nothing seemed to work very well. In fact, I began to notice that policies that consistently failed to reduce crime nevertheless continued to be funded. I began to conclude, rather cynically, that "nothing succeeds like failure" (an idea that first came to my attention courtesy of Jeff Reiman). Thus, despite numerous evaluations demonstrating almost total failure, such popular policies as 'Scared Straight," DARE, boot camps, mandatory sentencing, truth in sentencing, "Three Strikes and You're Out" (and many variations of these policies) continued along their merry way, getting funded every year with no questions asked! Jerome Miller, in his memoir of his experiences in the Massachusetts juvenile justice system, recounts numerous examples of people with vested interests continually sabotaging his efforts to make the system more humane. One example he gave was that after a particular reform school was closed and all of the inmates were released most of the staff continued to report to work for at least a month!
The "crime control industry" has behaved as a sort of "Keynesian" stimulus to the economy (a point I owe in part to Noam Chomsky). This is typical of the way modern capitalism really often works, namely, through various subsidies from taxpayers (often via the Pentagon system). During the 19th century many large corporations began to realize that they could not compete in a totally "free market" (like the one discussed by Adam Smith) and that in order to survive they needed help from the state. So, for instance, railroad companies received plenty of free land from the government. In time it became obvious to business leaders that you needed to get the government involved to stimulate the economy or else we would have another 1930s-type depression. After World War II, the Pentagon system emerged and the build-up of the "military-industrial complex," which is alive and well today (witness the generous government contracts to rebuild Iraq). It became obvious to key political and government leaders that in order to get taxpayer dollars to support this type of capitalism, it was necessary to create fear among the populace. The fear became, of course, the threat of "communism" and as long as this fear was perpetuated, then no amount of money was too much for "security." Similarly, the "crime control industry" would not receive nearly as much money as it does if not for the creation of fear - only in this case, it is the fear of "crime" or more specifically fear of things like "gangs" and of course "drugs." Today, despite little or no change in the total crime rate since the early 1970s, the criminal justice system has little trouble getting more money whenever it asks. In my own city of Las Vegas, the police department is asking for huge increases in their budget, despite the fact that crime is no worse than it was 20 or 30 years ago. And, as one of my commentaries on the police notes (see Commentaries), adding more cops has never resulted in a significantly lower crime rate.
As my research continued over the years I began to notice a very obvious, almost sinister, element of the crime control industry. I am referring here to the fact that many crime control policies target those who are the most disadvantaged in our society, namely, the poor and racial minorities. An obvious example is the "war on drugs," which, as many criminologists have concluded, focuses almost exclusively on drugs used by these groups, so much so that many have concluded that this was actually the intention of this "war"---that is, to target these groups. The huge discrepancies in sentencing reveal an obvious class and racial bias.
These themes continued to dominate my thinking about the subject of crime and justice throughout my career. These same themes are found throughout the various sections of this web site.
In recent years the tendency to challenge the "world taken for granted" and develop a consistently critical perspective has led me to take a much larger view of crime and justice. I have expanded my analysis to take into account the "bigger picture," which is what sociology should do anyway. Crime and justice do not occur in a social vacuum. These issues must be understood in their historical, social, economic and political context. My research has led me to examine some very controversial issues like political corruption, economic inequality, crimes by corporations and the state, including the most current controversy, "terrorism." I put quotes around that word, since it has become apparent from my study of this issue (relying heavily on the works of Noam Chomsky and others; see the web page of Znet.org) that it is terrorism when others do it, but not when our own government does it.
So welcome to my web site! I look forward to having a dialog with anyone who enters. My e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Becker, Howard S. 1963. Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. New York: Free Press.
Berger, Peter and Thomas Luckman. 1966. The Social Construction of Reality. New York: Doubleday.
Chomsky, Noam. 2004. Hegemony or Survival. New York: Metropolitan Books.
Johnson, Chalmers. 2004. Sorrows of Empire. New York: Metropolitan Books.
Merton, Robert K. 1957. Social Theory and Social Structure. New York: Free Press.
Miller, Jerome. 1998 Last One Over the Wall: The Massachusetts Experiment in Closing Reform Schools. (2nd ed.). Columbus: Ohio University Press.
Reiman, Jeff. 2004. The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison (7th ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Schur, Edwin. 1971. Labeling Deviant Behavior. New York: Harper and Row.
Wray, L. R.2000. "A New Economic Reality: Penal Keynesianism." Challenge 43, 5: 31-59.
Zinn, Howard. 2000. A People's History of the United States, 20th Anniversary Edition. New York: Harper Collins.