Contrasting Schools of Thought in Criminology*

This is taken from Criminal Justice in America: A Critical View, co-author William B. Brown (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2004, chapter 3), with some minor revisions.



Two broad schools of thought have dominated the thinking about crime and criminal justice during the past 200 years, the classical and the positivist.  Within each of these schools of thought several variations have appeared and each of these tend to correspond with one of three major political ideologies: conservative, liberal and radical.[1] 




The classical school of thought about crime and criminal justice emerged during the late eighteenth century with the work of an Italian named Cesare Beccaria and an Englishman named Jeremy Bentham.  Classical thinking derives its core ideas from a period known as the Enlightenment, first emerging in France during the early eighteenth century and was represented by such thinkers as John Locke (1632-1704), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), Charles Louis Montesquieu (1689-1755) and Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679).  This period has been described as one of tremendous changes in traditional thinking about human nature and society. 

According to the classical school, an unwritten social contract emerged during an earlier period known as the Renaissance (1300-1600).  This was a vast social movement that swept away old feudal customs and institutions, made for gains in intellectual development, and paralleled the emergence of capitalism throughout the Western world.  According to the emerging view of the social contract (perhaps best illustrated by the writings of Hobbes and Rousseau), humans originally lived in a state of nature, grace, or innocence, and their escape from this state resulted from the application of reason. In other words, humans were essentially rational people whose reasoning powers placed them far above animals.  Also, this perspective stressed that humans have free will and theoretically there was no limit to what they could accomplish.  Furthermore, it was asserted that humans were essentially hedonistic, that humans, by their very nature, freely choose actions that maximize pleasure and minimize pain.  Social contract thinkers claimed that the main instrument of the control of human behavior is fear, especially fear of pain.  Punishment, as a principal method of operating to create fear, is seen as necessary to influence human will and thus to control behavior.  Also, society had a right to punish the individual, and to transfer this right to the state. Finally, some code of criminal law, or some system of punishment was deemed necessary to respond to crime.[2]

The classical school derives mainly from the work of Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794) whose influential book called On Crimes and Punishment was first published in 1764.[3]  Beccaria and other liberal thinkers believed that the major principle that should govern legislation was "the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers" (this supports the view that government should be "of the people, by the people, for the people").  This philosophical doctrine is known as utilitarianism, the idea that punishment ought to be based on its usefulness or utility or practicality.  In his book, Beccaria noted, "For a punishment to attain its end, the evil which it inflicts has only to exceed the advantages derivable from the crime."  In other words, punishment should not be excessive; it should fit the crime.

The book On Crimes and Punishment was the first to provide a basic outline of what turned out to be the modern system of criminal justice.  Several of his recommendations provide good summaries of his perspective.  Perhaps most notable is the following, from the last page of his classic book:


In order for punishment not to be, in every instance, an act of violence of one or of many against a private citizen, it must be essentially public, prompt, necessary, the least possible in the given circumstances, proportionate to the crimes, dictated by the laws.[4]


Beccaria also argued that punishment that closely follows the commission of a crime will be more just and useful.  In other words, punishment should be “swift and certain.”  The major thrust of the classical school, however, is that the purpose of the criminal justice system is to prevent crime through deterrence.  According to this line of thinking, a potential criminal will decide against committing a crime because the punishment would be too costly.

Jeremy Bentham, one of Beccaria's contemporaries (1748-1832), suggested that criminal behavior (like all human be­havior) is a rational choice, born of free will.  To prevent crime, we must make the punishment (i.e., pain) greater than the criminal act.

In summary, the classical school makes these assumptions:  (1) all people are by their nature self-seeking and therefore liable to commit crime; (2) in order to live in harmony and avoid a “war of all against all” (as Hobbes stressed), people agree to give up certain freedoms in order to be protected by a strong central state; (3) punishment is necessary to deter crime and the state has the prerogative (which has been granted to it by the people through a social contract) to administer it; (4) punishment should fit the crime and not be used to rehabilitate the offender; (5) use of the law should be limited and due process rights should be observed; (6) each individual is responsible for his or her actions and thus mitigating circumstances or excuses are inadmissible.[5]


The Crime Control and Due Process Models


The classical school of thought has generally led to two contrasting models of the criminal justice system, which are roughly the equivalent of two differing political ideologies, namely, conservatism and liberalism.[6]  From the conservative ideology comes the crime control model.  Essentially the crime control model is based upon the assumption that the fundamental goal of the criminal justice system is the "repression of crime" through aggressive law enforcement, strict enforcement of the law and harsh punishments, including the use of the death penalty.  From this point of view, it is better to emphasize protecting citizens from crime than protecting the civil liberties of citizens.  In other words, supporters of this model would prefer that few criminals be set free on “technicalities,” even at the expense of depriving innocent persons of their constitutional rights.  Thus, the concern is more over "public safety" than individual rights.

From the liberal ideology comes the due process model.  While the crime control model may resemble an “assembly line,” the due process model resembles an “obstacle course.”  The due process model stresses the importance of individual rights and would support the general belief that it is better to let several criminals go free than to falsely imprison an innocent person.  This model is based upon the assumption that the criminal justice process is plagued by human error throughout.  At each stage of the criminal process individual rights should be safeguarded.  The accused should be accorded legal counsel, equitable treatment at each stage of the proceedings and that discretion by criminal justice personnel, especially the police, should be limited. 

The classical school, and its modern derivatives, is subject to several major criticisms. First, the assumptions that people always act rationally and that all people are hedonists and self-serving can be challenged.  In fact, over 100 years of social science research has demonstrated that this is clearly not the case, that humans are much more complex than such a simplistic view.[7]

            Second, while it assumes that people are equal in the narrow sense of being able to reason and are equally as likely to commit a crime, in point of fact people in society (especially when the classical school emerged) are hardly equally by any method of measurement.  Thus, you can hardly have "equal justice" in an unequal society.  Appropriate here is the famous statement by French philosopher Anatole France who once praised the “majestic equality of the law” in that it “forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread.”[8]

This point leads us directly into the third objection, namely that the classical school does little to address the causes of crime.  As Taylor, Walton and Young note, the classical writers particularly avoided any discussion of the relationship between inequality and crime and instead focused on problems associated with the control of crime.[9]  It became, in the words of George Vold, “administrative and legal criminology” during which justice became “an exact scale of punishments for equal acts without reference to the nature of the individual involved and with no attention to the question of special circumstances under which the act came about.”[10]

The problems associated with the classical approach, as proposed by Beccaria, were felt as soon as legislatures began to adopt them.  The French Code of 1791, for instance, tried to adopt, almost literally, Beccaria's proposals.  This legislation tried to fix an exact amount of penalty to every crime and left nothing for the courts to do except to determine guilt.  No attempt was made to allow for extenuating circumstances.  The Code was impossible to enforce on a daily basis.[11]  More importantly, it was virtually impossible to ignore the various social determinants of human behavior “and to proceed as if punishment and incarceration could be easily measured on some kind of universal calculus...”[12]  What eventually occurred was what criminologists have called the ‘neoclassical school,” which consisted of several attempts by lawyers and jurists, mostly in Europe, who attempted to make several revisions of the classical approach to account for the practical problems in the administration of justice according to Beccaria's plan. Certain reformers attacked the French Code as unjust because of its rigidity and called for a “need for individualization and for discriminating judgement to fit individual circumstances.”[13]  Among other things, the offender's past record, the degree of incompetence, insanity of the offender and the impact of age on criminal responsibility would be thus taken under consideration.[14]  In short, there was recognition that all offenders did not possess the same degree of “free will” and because of this not every offender was suitable to imprisonment. 

It is important to note, however, that the basic thrust of the classical school's vision of human beings and the proper response to crime was, for all practical purposes, left unchanged.  As Vold and Bernard have observed: 


The doctrine continued to be that humans are creatures guided by reason, who have free will, and who therefore are responsible for their acts and can be controlled by fear of punishment.  Hence the pain from punishment must exceed the pleasure obtained from the criminal act; then free will determines the desirability of noncriminal conduct.  The neoclassical school therefore represented primarily the modifications necessary for the administration of the criminal law based on classical theory that resulted from practical experience.[15]



More importantly, the administration of justice continued to be guided, as it is today, with one overriding principle: that human behavior, in this case criminal behavior, can be shaped, molded, changed, etc., through the fear of punishment and that all that is needed is to make the punishment (or rather the pain that is associated with it) exceed the pleasure (or profit from the crime), to prevent people from committing crime. This, along with most of the other assumptions of the classical, was already beginning to be challenged almost at the same time that Beccaria's proposals were being debated. The challenge came from a rival school of criminology, the positivist school.




The positivist school originated in the 19th century in the context of the “scientific revolution,” especially the discoveries of Charles Darwin and subsequent scientific advancements.  This revolution represented a sharp break from the past.  Answers to some of the most fundamental questions about human beings and the universe around them began to be presented through the means of an “objective” science, rather than religious beliefs or “arm-chair” philosophy.  In Darwin's book On the Origin of Species (published in 1859), he presented evidence that “humans were the same general kind of creatures as the rest of the animals, except that they were more highly evolved or developed.”  Most importantly, humans were beginning to be “understood as creatures whose conduct was influenced, if not determined, by biological and cultural antecedents rather than as self-determining beings who were free to do what they wanted.”[16]  It was at this time that the first “scientific” studies of crime and criminal behavior began.

Positivism represents a method of inquiry that attempts to answers questions through what has come to be called the scientific method.  Through this method the researcher examines the “real world” of “empirical facts” through the testing of “hypotheses” with the main goal of arriving at the ultimate “truth” and deriving “laws” (e.g., the law of falling bodies, the law of relativity).  The positivist mode of inquiry gained respectability in the social sciences largely through the work of August Comte (1798-1857) who is often credited as being the founder of positivism in addition to the founder of the discipline known as sociology.  According to Comte knowledge passes through three stages: theological, metaphysical, and positive or scientific.  The scientific or positivist is the highest or final stage of knowledge through which human beings are able to discover regularities among social phenomena resulting in the establishment of predictability and control.[17]

As it relates to the study of crime and criminal justice, the positivist school of criminology argues that humans do not have free will, that their behavior is determined by various biological, psychological and sociological factors.  Thus, responsibility for one's actions is diminished.  The solution to the problem of crime, from this perspective, is to eliminate the various factors that are thought to be the most likely causes of why crime occurs in the first place.  Such a task might include, but certainly not limited to, psychiatric and or psychological testing and treatment, dietary monitoring and supplements or adjustments, or the reduction of poverty or greater emphasis on education.  The criminal justice system has attempted to accomplish the goal of reducing crime by making the punishment fit the offender, rather than fit the crime, as the classical school proposes.  Subscription to this goal directs the criminal justice system to rehabilitate the offender, rather than punish and that this is to be done through the wide use of discretion among criminal justice officials and some form of indeterminate sentence.

The scientific study of crime began with Adolfe Quetelet (a Belgium mathematician) and Andre-Michel Guerry (a French statistician) in Europe during the 1830s and 1840s, plus several English writers, such as Henry Mayhew, during the 18402 and 1850s.[18]  Adolphe Quetelet built the foundation for positivist criminology through his work in statistics.  His quest for identifying law-like regularities in society, using traditional scientific methods, resulted in an interest in studying crime by studying the rates of crime.  Quetelet looked at official crime data for France and found striking regularities within the French criminal justice apparatus.  He found consistencies in the number of defendants who failed to appear in the courts.  Certain courts were also found to be more likely to impose particular sanctions for particular offenses.  Looking at different types of crimes committed in France between 1826 and 1829 he concluded that: “So, as I have had occasion to repeat several times before, one passes from one year to theother with the sad perspective of seeing the same crimes reproduced in the same order and bring with them the same penalties in the same proportions.”[19]

Identifying a correlation between crime and the ability to read and write, Quetelet found that, as reading and writing proficiency increased, the frequency of criminal acts decreased.  For example, looking at the years 1828 and 1829, he was able to identify over 2000 crimes against the person committed by people who could not read or write.  During the same period he noted that only 80 similar offenses had been committed by people who have received "superior" academic instruction.  He found that the more superiorly educated were much less likely to be involved in property crimes than their uneducated counterparts.  He identified 206 property offenses committed by the well educated compared to 6,617 like offenses committed by illiterate offenders during the same time period.  These phenomena were explained by Quetelet, as follows:


It is possible, in fact, that individuals of the knowledgeable class of society, while committing fewer manslaughters, murders, and other serious crimes than those individuals who have not received any instruction, nevertheless commit even fewer crimes against property...This conjecture likewise becomes probable if one considers that the knowledgeable class implies more affluence and, consequently, less need to resort to the different varieties of theft which make up a great part of crimes against property; while affluence and knowledge do not succeed as easily in restraining the fire of the passions and sentiments of hate and vengeance.[20]


Later, he turned his attention to the propensities for crime, and found striking correlations between crime and independent variables such as age, sex, climate, and socio-economic status of offenders.  Young males between the ages of 21 and 25 were found to have the highest propensity for crime, while women had the lowest.  When Quetelet compared female and male offenders he discovered that males committed nearly four times as many property offenses as women, and they were involved in over six times the number of violent offenses committed by their female counterparts.  He also noted that violent offenses were more likely to occur in the summer months, and property offenses were more commonly committed during the winter.  The poor and the unemployed were found to have a higher propensity for crime than members of the working and upper classes.  He also discovered that economic changes were related to crime rates, surmising that society itself, through its economic and social attributes, was responsible for crime.  While people may have free will there were, nevertheless, scientific laws to which criminal behavior was responsive.

Recognizing that all people had the "capacity" to commit crime (an idea that would later be adopted by neo-Freudians), Quetelet argued that the average person rarely transferred that option into action.  He eventually turned away from the social influences of criminal behavior (as most contemporary criminologists have done), and focused on the correlation between crime and morality, suggesting that certain “types” of people were more prone to criminal behavior than others (e.g., vagabonds, gypsies, and others with "inferior moral stock").

The big breakthrough as far as positivist criminology is concern came, however, with an Italian doctor named Cesare Lombroso who in 1876 published the now classic Criminal Man (1911), which earned him the dubious title of the “father of criminology.”  In this work Lombroso emphasized the biological basis of criminal behavior, arguing that the criminal is “born” that way and can be distinguished from non-criminals according to certain physical characteristics, especially those Lombroso called stigmata or characteristics that are throwbacks to more primitive people.  Criminals, said Lombroso, are essentially biologically inferior.

Lombroso's work was only the beginning and since his time positivist criminology has branched out into different versions.  Today there are three major versions of positivist criminology: biological (which began with Lombroso), psychological, and sociological.  Thus, biological positivism locates the causes of crime within the individual's physical makeup; psychological positivism suggests the causes are in faulty personality development; sociological positivism stresses certain social factors within one's environment or surrounding culture and social structure.[21] 

The positivist approach suffers from several problems.  First, it assumes that pure objectivity is possible, that research can be "value free" or without any biases.  Weber, perhaps fully understanding the potential for intellectual and/or academic arrogance, strongly cautioned researchers about the assumption of objective and/or value free research.  Second, it takes for granted the existing social and economic order; that is, it generally accepts the status quo and the official definition of reality.  Part of the reality that is accepted includes the standard definitions of "crime," that is, the state's definition of crime.  Because of this positivists have focused their research almost exclusively on those who violate the criminal law, rather than the law itself, so that their efforts are aimed toward controlling and/or changing the lawbreaker, rather than the law or the social order that it is part of.  Third, there is an assumption that the scientific method is the only way of achieving knowledge, of arriving at the truth.  Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, the positivist method does not assist us in seeking alternatives to the present social and economic order, and hence the present method of responding to crime.[22]

There is also a more frightening implication of the positivist orientation.  Two of Lombroso's followers, Enrico Ferri (1856-1928) and Rafaele Garofalo (1852-1934) became supporters of Fascism during their careers.  For Ferri especially, the positivist orientation represented the authority of the state over the “excesses of individualism.”  As Vold and Bernard note what happened to Ferri


highlights one of the problems of positivistic theory, namely the ease with which it fits into totalitarian patterns of government.  It is centered on the core idea of the superior knowledge and wisdom of the scientific expert who, on the basis of scientific knowledge, decides what kind of human beings commit crimes, and prescribes treatment without concern for public opinion and without consent from the person so diagnosed (i.e., the criminal).  There is an obvious similarity between the control of power in society advocated in positivism and the political reality of centralized control of the life of the citizen by a governmental bureaucracy indifferent to public opinion.[23]


What is most interesting about both of these perspectives is that they are primarily concerned with the control of crime, rather than the amelioration of the social conditions that create crime, although the positivist approach gives at least some lip service to the causes of crime.  Even the positivists, however, have been concerned primarily with the offender and how he or she can be controlled and/or changed, rather than changing the existing social and economic order itself. 

What we need is a method of thinking and inquiry that allows us to question the taken for granted assumptions of both the classical and the positivist schools of thought.  We need a method that allows us to conceive of something other than the present status quo and to seek alternatives to the “business as usual” approach of the modern criminal justice system.  Thus we now turn to an examination of the critical approach.




A critical approach to the criminal justice system provides students with what many consider a better understanding of this system.  This involves what is usually referred to as critical thinking.  This type of thinking includes, among other things, attempting to transcend the current social order and institutional arrangements.  Through this process we no longer merely accept “what is.”  Rather, we attempt to visualize “what could be.”  Paraphrasing the late Senator Robert Kennedy, some may think about what is and ask “why” while others, that is, critical thinkers, think about what could be and ask “why not.”  Also, taking a critical approach urges us to question authority and ask “Says who”?  Many beliefs people hold are taken from the views of people in “authority” - when we were children, our parents, later our teachers, and throughout our lives, political leaders, academics, various “experts.” 

But how do we know they are right?  The best thing to do is to find out for ourselves, through our own research. (I would even encourage students to challenge the author, check his sources and even, heaven forbid, challenge the person teaching the class you are taking!)  The author once heard a talk given by Howard Zinn during which he suggested that we go further than merely checking out what those in authority tell us by wondering what they are not telling us!  What are they hiding?  Are they omitting certain facts, are they covering up something?  Those in positions of authority are often in a position where their livelihoods and careers are at stake, so they have a lot to lose by telling the truth. 

The standard treatment of the criminal justice system makes a number of rarely questioned assumptions, such as taking the law for granted and treating the criminal justice system in a social, political and economic vacuum.  Such approaches largely ignore such critical issues as class, race, and gender in the analysis, so that issues like racism, inequality, poverty and class conflict are rarely raised.  If they are raised, they are usually done so merely in passing, as if they are aberrations in an otherwise ideal system.

A critical perspective also utilizes what C. Wright Mills called the sociological imagination.  By this Mills meant that the best way to understand the world around us is to “grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society.”  More specifically, he wrote that through the use of this method “the individual can understand his own experience and gauge his own fate only by locating himself within his period [of history]...”  Using the sociological imagination causes us to distinguish between what Mills called “personal troubles of milieu” and “public issues of social structure.”  By “personal troubles” Mills referred to those very personal, private matters that “occur within the character of the individual and within the range of his immediate relations with others.”  A problem becomes a “public issue of social structure” when the issue has to do with “matters that transcend those local environments of the individual’ and when “some value cherished by publics is felt to be threatened.”[24]

By “social structure” we mean the basic institutions of society, such as the economy, family, education, legal and political.  We all work and live every day of our lives within these institutions, and we are often constrained by the roles created for us.  Those who find themselves working within the legal institution - more specifically, the institutions of the police, courts, prisons, etc. - become somewhat constrained within them.  Thus, for instance, individual police officers may be sensitive to the issues of racism and the racist nature of the drug laws, but are nevertheless required to “enforce the law.”  Police officers are also products of what is known as a “police subculture” that helps shape their attitudes, values and views of the world.  In short, they are constrained by “the system.”  It may be fruitless to deal with issues like police brutality or what is known as “racial profiling” by blaming individual police officers.  After all, they are, in a sense, ordered to patrol mostly poor and minority communities.

From this perspective, humans are products of the larger social environment in which they live and work. At the same time, however, humans have the power and ability to make significant changes, even while “working within the system,” as the old saying goes.  Karl Marx once wrote that while human beings “make their own history” they “do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.  The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.”[25]  Students who hope to work within the criminal justice system need to keep this perspective in mind, so that they will not be so overwhelmed by the enormity of the problems they face.


Some Key Assumptions


In my view, there are several key assumptions that are made when taking a critical approach to the criminal justice system.  Here are some of what I consider to be the most important:


1.         The current social order and the nature of this order helps determine the nature of the law and therefore the definitions of “crime.” Thus, for instance, in a feudal system, law concerns mostly issues of land tenure and inheritance; in a capitalist system, the law is concerned mostly with private property.[26]


2.         The legal institution (including law making bodies and the various agencies that enforce the law, such as police, courts, penal systems), as do other social institutions (e.g., education, politics) ultimately helps to support and perpetuate the existing social order.  In modern American society the legal institution helps support and perpetuates a capitalist order. Since modern capitalist societies are based upon the private ownership of capital by a relatively small class of people, that is, a “ruling” or “upper” class, which in turn has created a great amount of structured social inequality (based upon social class, race and gender), it follows that the legal institution helps to perpetuate such inequality, at least indirectly.[27]


3.         A capitalist system such as American society is based not only on the above-noted inequalities, but such inequalities result from an unequal distribution of resources (e.g., wealth, education) which in turn creates an unequal distribution of power (and with it the ability to control others).[28]


4.         It follows that, in general, the legal institution tends to operate in such a way that will favor those with the most resources and power.[29]


From these general assumptions the following propositions are offered that together combine to form a theory of the criminal justice system:


1.         Role of the State.  The state (which includes legal institutions), while representing the long-term interests of the ruling class and the capitalist system, does not always act as a mere “instrument” of the ruling class; therefore the state often acts as an autonomous unit and against the interests of the ruling class.  Thus, state definitions of crime do not always reflect the interests of the ruling class.[30]


2.         Definition of Crime. The defining of behaviors as criminal by the state and the applications of such definitions are exercises in power; the ability to define behaviors as criminal and to resist such definitions varies with the degree of power one has.  Crime describes behaviors that are most likely to correspond to behaviors committed by those groups with the least amount of power in society; conversely, similar behaviors by those with the most power are the least likely to be defined as a crime.[31]


3.         Application of Criminal Definitions.   At each stage of the criminal justice process key decisions are made by agents of the state to either dismiss the case or process it further.  At each stage, the probability of advancing further into the system increases as the degree of powerlessness by defendants decreases. At each stage those who are left become more and more homogeneous in terms of social class, race and other social demographic characteristics.  By the time a case reaches the final stage, sentencing, the group that has the least amount of power will be the most likely to receive a prison sentence or the sentence of death.  It is this group that is the most homogenous.



Is the Criminal Justice System Designed to Fail?


A critical perspective also challenges the conventional wisdom about the nature of our criminal justice system by arguing that the system not only fails in its duty to protect us from crime and make us feel safe, but that it is actually designed to fail.  In making this argument we are borrowing the ideas of Jeffrey Reiman who calls this way of looking at criminal justice the Pyrrhic defeat theory.  In military terminology, a “Pyrrhic victory” is where a particular battle is won, but the costs in terms of troops lost amounts to a defeat.  Reiman suggests that “the failure of the criminal justice system yields such benefits to those in positions of power that it amounts to success.”[32]  Such “success” comes in the following forms:


(1) By focusing primarily on the crimes of the poor and racial minorities, it distorts the crime picture by deflecting the discontents and anger of middle class Americans toward the poor and racial minorities, rather than toward those in positions of power above them;


(2) The American criminal justice system, in its “war on crime,” makes it look as if the most serious threat comes from the crimes of the poor and racial minorities, when in fact the greatest harms, both in terms of life and property, come from the crimes of the very rich;


(3) By focusing on “crime control” and the punishment of individual offenders the system fails to address some of the major causes of crime. This is what Reiman calls the ideological functions of the criminal justice system. 


By focusing exclusively on the individual offender, writes Reiman it diverts our attention away from our institutions, away from consideration of whether our institutions themselves are wrong or unjust or indeed “criminal” it diverts us from the evils of the social order.[33]

Debra Seagal’s comments about a prime-time television “real crime” show which was based upon videotapes of real police arrests seems appropriate here.  She discusses how focusing on individual criminals diverts our attention away from the social context of crime and, indeed, communicates the idea that these offenders exist in a social vacuum.  Seagal writes as follows:


By the time our 9 million viewers flip on their tubes, we've reduced fifty or sixty hours of mundane and compromising video into short, action-packed segments of tantalizing, crack-filled, dope-dealing, junkie-busting, cop culture.  How easily we downplay the pathos of the suspect; how cleverly we breeze past the complexities that cast doubt on the very system that has produced the criminal activity in the first place.[34]


In a similar vein, one writer has noted that the big hoopla about “family values” in the 1992 presidential race by Vice President Dan Quayle over both the riots in Los Angeles following the Rodney King verdict and an episode in the Television series Murphy Brown (where the main character is a single woman who decides to have her baby out of wedlock and raise it herself) completely ignored the “social context” of the lives of most women and most inner-city African-Americans.  This writer further noted that:


..the erasure of the L.A. uprising in the Murphy Brown incident moved the debate away from issues of race, from the condition of inner cities, and from the deteriorating economic base in the United States, to a much safer, symbolic ground. By shifting the debate from the material conditions of inner cities to the discursive field of “family values,” both parties occupied a much more comfortable terrain for debate.[35] 


This is an example of what is known as “symbolic politics.”[36] Similarly, TV Crime shows constantly inform the public about the dangerous criminals in our midst without any attempt to try to explain why. Of course, it should be understood that television is not really concerned with such in depth analysis of social problems, since they are concerned with ratings more than anything else.  Nevertheless, the viewer is left with the impression that these criminals come out of nowhere! 

It should be emphasized that there is an important difference between understanding or explaining certain behaviors (like crime) and justifying or excusing such behaviors.  We can certainly condemn the rapist, the murdered and even the corporate offender, but it is also important to develop an understanding of why these behaviors occur, if for no other reason than it may lead us to some solutions.  Similarly, we rightly condemn the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, but we also should try to understand why this happened in order to prevent it from occurring again.  For instance, if a police officer is facing a man wielding a gun or other weapon in a threatening manner and endangering the live of others, it is of little use to try to understand why the man is doing this while facing the point of a gun!  Yet, eventually it may be important for that officer to develop some understanding of why someone would resort to such behavior in the first place.  It may in time help to save a life if certain preventive measures can be taken to prevent this from happening again.

But we must also utilize critical thinking and the sociological imagination to better inform us of what is going on.  Reiman suggests the following:


To look only at individual criminality is to close one's eyes to social injustice and to close one's ears to the question of whether our social institutions have exploited or violated the individual. Justice is a two-way street - but criminal justice is a one-way street.  Individuals owe obligations to their fellow citizens because their fellow citizens owe obligations to them.  Criminal justice focuses on the first and looks away from the second. Thus, by focusing on individual responsibility for crime, the criminal justice system literally acquits the existing social order of any charge of injustice.[37]


It should be noted that Reiman is not suggesting (and neither are we) that the crimes of the poor and racial minorities is not a major problem.  Indeed, those who are the most likely to be victimized are those from the ranks of the urban poor and racial minorities.  We cannot ignore the human wreckage that occurs every day in our urban areas in the form of violence and predatory crime, including crimes against women and children (what usually falls within the category of “domestic violence”), not to mention the devastating effects of drugs and alcohol.  However, we agree with Reiman when he writes that:



On the other hand, there are enough benefits to the wealthy from the identification of crime with the poor and the system's failure to reduce crime that those with the power to make profound changes in the system feel no compulsion nor see any incentive to make them.[38]


It should be noted here that I am not claiming that many who work within the criminal justice system do not try their best to deal with people fairly and equitably.  Both of us have met many who do (but certainly not enough).  My point is that the system itself and most of those who ultimately control it (and control the major institutions in our society, especially the economic and political institutions), have become part of the problem and help perpetuate the crime problem.[39]

Students need to view the criminal justice system (and the juvenile justice system too) from a variety of perspectives, identify the relationship between the various facets of that system, evaluate the importance of assumptions embraced by each perspective, and weigh the evidence presented.  Thus, students are challenged to use different colored lenses to examine many topical areas surrounding the criminal justice system, and to question, and consider alternatives to, the existing system of criminal justice in America.




[1] Cullen, F. and K. Gilbert .  Reaffirming Rehabilitation. Cincinnati: Anderson, 1982, p. 27.

[2] Social contract theorists based their theories upon some unproven assumptions about “human nature,” yet their views were taken as given by the new bourgeois governments in the 17th and 18th centuries and “social contract” became a convenient ideology justifying a strong central government or “state” that is ultimately concerned with protecting the interests of private property and profits.  The social contract theory in turn justified the build-up of police forces and other formal methods of handling conflicts and disputes - in short - a formal criminal justice system (also included a definition of crime as a harm to the state and the “people” - often used interchangeably).  Ironically Rousseau wrote that the ultimate source of inequality was man taking a plot of ground and claiming it as his own; and this is exactly what happened during the infamous Enclosure Movements in England during the 16th century when powerful landlords built fences around common ground (land formally used by all and not legally “owned”) and claimed it as their own or charged rent in the name of “private property.”  This resulted in thousands of vagrants (homeless people) literally invading European cities in search of work and eventually being labeled the “dangerous classes” or worse by the privileged.  The Elizabethan Poor Laws were passed during the 16th century which declared two kinds of poor: (1) the worthy, which are those who can be reformed and be useful to society and (2) the unworthy, which are those who are unreformable, useless, requiring sentence to the poorhouse/workhouse (early forms of jails and prisons).  The prevailing view of crime was that it is a voluntary violation of the social contract and became an essential idea in much of the subsequent thinking about crime, especially classical views.  Such a view largely ignored the gross inequalities existing at the time; with such inequality came illiteracy leading us to question whether “the people” in these new social orders unanimously agreed on the social contract, since so few could read or write.

[3] This classic book is available in many bookstores and libraries.  See Beccaria, C. On Crimes and Punishment.  New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963.

[4]  Ibid., p. 99.

[5] Taylor, I., P. Walton and J. Young.  The New Criminology. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973, p. 2.

[6] Packer, H. L. The Limits of the Criminal Sanction. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1968.

[7] For a good discussion of “human nature” and the fact that humans are not inherently “hedonistic” see Michalowski, R. Order, Law and Crime.  New York: Macmillan, 1985 chapter 3.  See also Taylor, Walton, and Young for a critique of the classical school of thought.  For an excellent discussion of deterrence (which is a central feature of the classical school) see F. Zimring and G. J. Hawkins, Deterrence: The Legal Threat in Crime Control.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973.

[8] Quoted in Burtch, B. The Sociology of Law. Toronto: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992, p. 6.

[9] Taylor, Walton and Young, The New Criminology, p. 5.

[10] Vold, G. and T. J. Bernard.  Theoretical Criminology, 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986, p. 25.

[11] Vold and Bernard, pp. 25-26,

[12]  Taylor, Walton and Young, p. 7.

[13] Vold and Bernard, p. 26.

[14] Taylor, Walton and Young, p. 8; Vold and Bernard, p. 26.

[15]  Vold and Bernard, p. 27.

[16]  Ibid. p. 36.

[17] Bottomore, T., L. Harris, V.G. Kiernan and R. Miliband (eds.), A Dictionary of Marxist Thought. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983, p. 382.

[18] Vold and Bernard, pp. 131-132; Quinney, R. and J. Wildeman, The Problem of Crime: A Peace and Social Justice Perspective (3rd ed.). Mountain View, CA: Mayfield.  Wildeman, 1991, pp. 48-50.

[19] Quetelet, A.. Research on the Propensity for Crime at Different Ages.  Cincinnati: Anderson.  1984, p. 69 (originally published in 1831).

[20] Ibid.

[21] Cullen and Gilbert, Reaffirming Rehabilitation, p. 33.

[22] Quinney and Wildeman, p. 32-33.

[23]  Vold and Bernard, p. 42.

[24]  Mills, C. W. The Sociological Imagination.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1959, pp. 5-8.

[25]  Marx, K.  The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.  New York: International Publishers, 1963, p. 15 (originally published in 1852).

[26] Michalowski, pp. 14, 22-23.

[27] Parenti, M. (2002). Democracy for the Few (7th ed.). New York: Bedford /St. Martin’s, chapter 2.

[28]  Ibid.

[29]  For supporting evidence see the following: Chambliss, W. and R. Seidman. Law, Order and Power, 2nd ed. Read­ing, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1982 and Chambliss, W. and M. S. Zatz (eds.) Making Law: The State, the Law, and Structural Contradictions.  Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1993; Reiman, J. The Rich Get richer and the Poor Get Prison. (7th ed.).  Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2004. 

[30]  Lynch, M. and R. Michalowski,  A New Primer in Radical Criminology (3rd ed.).  New York: Harrow and Heston, 2000.

[31] Quinney, R. The Social Reality of Crime. New Brunswick, NJ, 2001 (originally published in 1970 by Little, Brown).

[32]  Reiman, p. 5.

[33]  Ibid, p. 156.

[34]  Seagal, D. “Tales from the Cutting-Room Floor: The Reality of ‘Reality-Based’ Television.” Harper's Magazine, November, 1993, quoted in Reiman, p. 157.

[35] Stabile, C. A.  “Feminism Without Guarantees: The Misalliances and Missed Alliances of Postmodernist Social Theory.” In A. Callari, S. Cullenberg, and C. Biewener (eds.), Marxism in the Postmodern Age.  New York: Gulliford Press, 1995, p. 289.

[36] Gordon, D. The Return of the Dangerous Classes: Drug Prohibition and Policy Politics.  New York: W. W.       Norton, 1994, p. 4.


[37]  Reiman, p. 157.

[38]  Ibid, p. 6.

[39]  Reiman suggests that those in positions of power who could do a lot to reduce crime generally come up with “four excuses that don't wash.”  These excuses include: (1) we are too soft on crime; (2) crime is inevitable in a complex society such as ours; (3) crime is the fault of young people or, rather, too many in the “crime prone years”; (4) we don't know how to reduce crime.  Each of these is a very lame excuse. Reiman, pp. 18-27. It seems to me that all the talk about various criminal justice strategies (especially the police) is like talking about ways to prevent natural disasters, like tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes and the like.  It is almost as if crime is without specific causes and is a “natural event” like hurricanes.  Therefore there is nothing we can do to prevent it, so the next best thing is to develop procedures to respond as quickly and as efficiently as possible, like improving the delivery of emergency services to the victims of the afore-mentioned natural disasters.