Friday, June 10, 2011

Conservative vs. liberal criminology

Two perspectives on crime

So far I’ve spent much time in the blog reviewing (and criticizing) what are sometimes referred to as “conservative” theories of crime. While these theories are described as defending individual responsibility, individual choice and rationality, they do these things in name only. From the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham to the social control theories of today, I’ve argued that conservative models are in fact deterministic. Mandatory sentencing and drug prohibition are examples of policies attempting to manipulate criminal thinking, treating criminals as machines whose behavior can be changed with pokes and prods. Alter the punishment for a crime and, it’s argued, that crime will cease to be appealing. Clean his body of drugs and, it’s argued, the criminal will no longer feel violent impulses. At no point is the criminal’s actual motivation and thinking engaged or challenged.

And sadly, no better theories exist within the “liberal” schools to address this deficit. At first, there seem to be a variety of theories that present motivations for crime, motivations that would set criminals apart from other individuals. However these motivations are not derived from psychological research or interviews, but are instead deduced from a sociological worldview. While I won't fully explore each theory in this post, I do want to introduce that worldview.

If I were to name the essential premise of the conservative school of criminology, it would be that humans are criminal by nature, and must learn to suppress or otherwise disincentivize this behavior.

If, then, I were to name the essential premise of liberal theories, it would be that “crime” is backlash caused by social injustice. “Crime” is in scare quotes here because these theories treat criminal behavior as a symptom, a consequence of problems in society. To punish an offender, according to this school of thought, ultimately “ignores the disease”.


What are examples of the "disease"? According to strain theory, inequalities of wealth and status. These inequalities create feelings of envy and frustration that are relieved by means of criminal activity, such as theft.

Labeling theory argues that crime can be caused by the internalization of negative labels. A juvenile who is repeatedly called a “delinquent” by authority figures may feel forced to accept the label and the role.

Others argue that many criminals are simply mentally ill, and that crime results because we are punishing offenders rather than seeing that they get the treatment they need.

So while conservatives subscribe to a psychological determinism, liberal theories subscribe to a social determinism. In other words, these theories hold that crime is caused by social forces, not individual choice. For an example on how this approach is used to study crime, see my blog post on the article, "Dropout and Delinquency". Rather than studying the mind of juvenile delinquents or criminals, social determinists attempt to predict social forces that would account for behavior, and measure their presence. Just as conservative research measures the presence of alcohol or drugs, or discipline in the home. In this way, the two perspectives don't appear so different in their treatment of the criminal, as a person moved like a puppet by outside forces.

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