Popular Culture and Criminal Justice Research Paper

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As anyone who has spent time watching television or going to the movies understands, crime and criminal justice occupy a prominent place in popular culture. The drama of the law violator brought to justice, the portrait of the lives and work of law enforcement officials, the stories of notorious, sometimes sensational crimes, and of justice done or justice denied are found every day as the common fare of the mass media.

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Crime and criminal justice live in culture as a set of images, as marvelous morality tales, as spectacles of the human effort to maintain ‘‘civilization’’ against the ‘‘forces of savagery.’’ Indeed the semiotics of crime and punishment is all around us, not just in the architecture of the prison, or the speech made by a judge as she sends someone to the penal colony, but in both ‘‘high’’ and ‘‘popular’’ cultural iconography, in novels, television, and film.

Crime and criminal justice traditionally have been great subjects of cultural production, suggesting the powerful allure of the fall and of our responses to it. ‘‘The law,’’ as Ewick and Silbey write, ‘‘seems to have a prominent cultural presence . . . , occupying a good part of our nation’s popular media . . . . We watch real and fictitious trials on television, often unable to distinguish fact from fiction . . . . We hear reports of crime and criminals on the nightly local news. And . . . millions of us devote hours of our leisure time to reading stories about crime, courts, lawyers and law’’ (p. 16). In addition, since the early 1970s, politicians have made crime a salient, often dramatic part of American political culture. As a result, the Miranda warnings, or the rituals of interrogation and cross-examination in a criminal trial, or even the internal life of law firms, these and many more, have a rich and powerful vernacular life (Gaubatz; Friedman, 1999). Thus anyone interested in understanding these subjects must, sooner or later, attend to their complex cultural lives and the consequences of these cultural lives for citizens and for legal institutions.

Scholars traditionally have looked to portraits of crime, whether fictional or based in fact, as devices through which cultural boundaries are drawn, arguing that solidarity is created through acts of marking difference between self and other (Durkheim; Mead). Yet today research suggests a more complex picture of the place of crime in popular culture and of its consequences for the cultural life of criminal justice. Some of this work examines the treatment of crime in popular culture for what it says about the adequacy of our institutions, their capacity to accurately assign responsibility and do justice. Still other research examines the representation of crime and criminal justice in popular culture to assess its accuracy or comprehensiveness, with a view to trying to understand the sources of public attitudes toward crime and justice. Finally, scholars analyze the way images in the media contribute to the creation of folk knowledge and assess the impact of that folk knowledge on the criminal justice system.

Criminal Justice As ‘‘Spectacle’’

Any account of contemporary scholarship on crime and popular culture must come to terms with Michel Foucault’s account of public executions. Historically, Foucault writes, executions were ‘‘More than an act of justice’’; they were a ‘‘manifestation of force’’ (p. 50). Public executions functioned as public theater; they were always centrally about display, in particular the display of the majestic, awesome power of sovereignty as it was materialized on the body of the condemned (Gatrell). Execution without a public audience was, as a result, meaningless (Spierenburg).

Following Foucault, scholars such as David Garland suggest that images of criminal punishment help ‘‘shape the overarching culture and contribute to the generation and regeneration of its terms’’ (p. 193). Punishment, Garland notes, is a set of signifying practices that ‘‘teaches, clarifies, dramatizes and authoritatively enacts some of the most basic moral-political categories and distinctions which help shape our symbolic universe’’ (p. 194). Popular culture treatments of punishment teach us how to think about categories like intention, responsibility, and injury, and they model the socially appropriate ways of responding to injury done to us.

One example of a study of the pedagogy of punishment as it is portrayed in popular culture is Sarat’s treatment of the films Dead Man Walking and Last Dance. These films, and others like them, focus on the appropriate fit between crime and punishment. As is typical of most representations of crime and criminal justice in popular culture, neither of these films explores the social structural factors that some believe must be addressed in responding to crime; instead they are preoccupied with the question of personal responsibility. To the extent they contain an explanation of crime and a justification for punishment it is to be located in the autonomous choices of particular agents.

While building dramatic tension around the question of whether their hero/heroine deserves the death penalty, these films convey a powerful double message: First, legal subjects can, and will, be held responsible for their acts; second, they can, and should, internalize and accept responsibility. Last Dance and Dead Man Walking suggest that there can be, and is, a tight linkage between crime and punishment such that those personally responsible for the former can be legitimately subject to the latter.

In the way they address questions of responsibility, Dead Man Walking and Last Dance, as well as much film and television drama about crime and criminal justice, enact a conservative cultural politics, a politics in which large political questions about what state killing does to our law, politics, and our culture are largely ignored. They leave ‘‘audiences clueless about systematic inequities and arbitrariness’’ of the criminal justice system (Shapiro, p. 1145) and, in so doing, support existing mechanisms of criminal punishment.

Critique of Criminal Justice

However, other research on representations of crime in popular culture also calls attention to the fact that those representations are sometimes quite critical of the criminal justice system, reminding their consumers of the inefficiencies and inequities that plague the criminal justice system, and highlighting the place of extralegal forces in balancing the scales of justice (Hall et al.). One example of such research is Miller’s analysis of Clint Eastwood’s film Unforgiven.

Set in the ‘‘old west,’’ Unforgiven depicts the quest of a group of prostitutes to buy justice for one of their number who was attacked by a customer. Clint Eastwood plays the reluctant hero who heeds their call. Yet throughout the film, while vengeance is presented as justified, as an equitable complement to law, it is not simply heroic. Unforgiven, Miller says, is at once a praise of revenge but also a caution about it, an invitation to do justice justly, to do it humbly, to do it no more than absolutely needs to be done.

Miller’s work highlights the importance of revenge in popular representations of crime. Miller contends that our culture is deeply conflicted about the moral status of revenge. Nonetheless, revenge retains its appeal; it is a pervasive theme in ‘‘the movies most people pay to see, the TV they watch, or the novels they read’’ (p. 169).

‘‘Implicit in stories of revenge,’’ Miller argues, ‘‘is the suggestion that revenge is a criticism of state-delivered justice’’ (p. 174). This criticism is directed at law’s technicality, its preoccupation with procedure. Miller’s research shows how popular culture draws our attention to the failings and inadequacy of a legal order. Law may thus always be called to account by narratives that it cannot fully contain or control. Those narratives provide powerful reminders of the gap between the justice that law regularly provides and the justice that resonates most powerfully throughout our culture.

‘‘Accuracy’’ of Popular Representations

Another strand of research on popular culture analyzes the treatment of crime and criminal justice on television, in film, and in political campaigns to assess its informational content, in particular to determine whether the images presented there adequately and accurately portray the realities of crime and justice in the United States (Sasson). Not surprisingly, most such studies note gaps between the accounts provided in the mass media and the ‘‘facts.’’ As Friedman notes, ‘‘popular culture, as reflected in the media, is not, and cannot be taken as, an accurate mirror of the actual state of living law . . . Cop shows aim for entertainment, excitement; they are not documentaries . . . Crime shows . . . overrepresent violent crimes; shoplifting is no great audience-holder, but murder is’’ (1989, p. 1588; also Graber).

This same concern for the accuracy of portraits of crime has been influential in studies of the treatment of crime in political campaigns. One famous example of the ‘‘manipulation’’ of images of crime for political purposes is provided by George Bush’s use of the controversial ‘‘Willie Horton’’ TV ads in the presidential campaign of 1988. These ads created a narrative nightmare of escape from punishment that resonated with public fears of criminal violence. The Horton narrative did so by making a black man who senselessly brutalized a white couple the symbolic representation of Michael Dukakis’s alleged criminal justice policy failure. This narrative has provided the bedrock for both political rhetoric and the consciousness of crime and punishment ever since.

The Horton advertisements blamed Dukakis for the occurrence of senseless, brutal crimes because of his alleged policy of letting serious violent offenders back into society far too soon. The first ad showed a revolving door with running text warning that 268 convicts escaped while on furlough and a voice-over stating that many leave prison early to commit crime again. The second ad provided emotional testimony about Dukakis’s record of failed furloughs and vetoes of capital punishment.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson has demonstrated the substantial effect of these ads on the public’s consciousness of crime and punishment. She describes, for example, how a nine-member Dallas focus group that favored Dukakis by five to four early in the campaign shifted support to Bush by a seven-to-two margin shortly after the airing of the Horton ads. Analyzing this change Jamieson notes that ‘‘the cues in the media have triggered a broad chain of associations’’ (p. 35). She observes that the Horton narrative—‘‘murderer released to murder again’’—had a powerful resonance with the public’s fear of violent crime and desire for a commonsense explanation for why it occurs. In Jamieson’s words, the Horton ad ‘‘completes in a satisfying manner a narrative that is already cast with a menacing murderer in a mug shot; anguished, outraged victims; and an unrepentant, soft-on-crime liberal’’ (p. 36).

The captivating character of the Horton narrative was evident in another aspect of public response. In particular, over time, focus group members became resistant to evidence that might debunk the accusations against Dukakis. Despite statistics documenting the overall success of the Massachusetts furlough program, as well as statistics from the federal government showing higher rates of early release and recidivism in California under Governor Ronald Reagan, one group member was provoked to respond,

‘‘You can’t change my mind with all of that. . . .’’ Another focus group member dismissed statistical evidence: ‘‘We should ship all our criminals to the college liberals in College Station . . . or Austin. Crime’s not statistics, honey’’ (Jamieson, pp. 31–32).

Jamieson blames the media as a willing, sometimes eager, accomplice in creating distorted perceptions. The media, she suggests, did little to disabuse the public of the misimpression that Dukakis promoted an irresponsible and failed policy of early release, or to get the details or context of the Horton story across. However, to the extent that the Horton ads hit home, it may have been because they tapped into, rather than created, the prevailing cultural commonsense. As Ericson notes, the relationship between the media and the public involves a ‘‘process of discursive struggle and negotiation’’ (p. 237).

Impact of Popular Culture

A final kind of work takes this idea of ‘‘discursive struggle and negotiation’’ seriously as it examines the impact of media accounts, whether on the news or in dramatic programming, on ‘‘folk knowledge,’’ with a view to understanding not the accuracy of that knowledge but rather its impact on the criminal justice system itself.

Steiner, Bowers, and Sarat (2000), to take one example, describe the impact of representations of crime and justice in shaping folk knowledge concerning the punishment of murderers not given a death sentence. In particular they seek to understand how long people believe those sentenced to life in prison actually serve. They find that most people believe that convicted murderers sentenced to life in prison do not serve life, but are instead released early. The impression of leniency is conveyed best, perhaps, by news accounts of the recidivism of ex-convicts or persons on probation, parole, or furlough from prison (Hall et al.; Barak). Such cases easily become the focal points for public debate about the ‘‘crime problem’’ and how it should be dealt with (Roberts and Doob).

As a result, Steiner, Bowers, and Sarat contend most citizens give time-served estimates that fall below the mandatory minimum for parole eligibility for first degree murderers in their states. The single most common estimate of the amount of time convicted murderers who are given life sentences actually serve is ‘‘less than ten years.’’ This relatively low estimate is consistent with the kind of narrative representation contained in the news media and in film and on television (Ericson, Baranek, and Chan).

Most importantly, Steiner, Bowers, and Sarat (2000) suggest folk knowledge has an important influence on how citizens behave when they are given decision-making power in the criminal justice system, namely when they serve as jurors in capital cases. They report that when jurors deliberate specifically about what the punishment should be, their specific release estimates become especially salient. In the context of group decision-making, folk knowledge of the timing of release is the currency of negotiation and decision-making. Jurors whose folk knowledge leads them to believe that murderers are less likely to be released early if given a life sentence may be more open to mitigating evidence and argument during sentencing deliberations. By contrast, believing that the defendant would soon be released may close jurors minds to mitigation, and hence to a sentence less than death. Thus folk knowledge of crime and punishment not only shapes individual judgments, but it also short-circuits existing legal procedures (in this case the requirement to consider mitigating evidence).


Examining the representation of crime and criminal justice in popular culture reveals that these representations are both ubiquitous and highly consequential. Whether they reinforce prevailing ideas of criminal responsibility or critique the adequacy of formal legal institutions or their capacity to do justice, whether conveying accurate information or helping to create a stock of folk knowledge about crime and punishment, these representations mean that crime is neither an esoteric subject nor one far removed from the consciousness of ordinary Americans.

Research on the images of crime and criminal justice available in popular culture suggests that those images empower citizens, giving them a conception of the crime problem and the state’s response to it that has a source independent of those whose legal authority derives from formal training or official position. It means that law can, and does, live in society, in ways that cannot readily be confined or controlled by state law. It also means that citizens can and will judge the seriousness of the crime problem and the state’s responses to it in terms of a widespread cultural common sense. Presented with what they regard as cultural nonsense, they make recourse to their own store of folk knowledge, their own repertoire of legal understandings. The result, as Yngvesson notes, is that popular consciousness of crime and criminal justice may become ‘‘a force contributing to the production of legal order rather than … simply an anomaly or a pocket of consciousness outside of law, irrelevant to its maintenance and transformation’’ (p. 1693).


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