Modern Controversies in Criminology Research Paper

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Controversy among criminologists and between criminologists and others is endemic. It could hardly be otherwise. Problems of definition, once merely legally technical regarding behavior defined as crime, are joined by both ideological and postmodern concerns with what crime, criminality, and criminology are about. Because crime is by definition behavior that is so specified in the criminal law, criminology involves study of, and controversy concerning, how and why behaviors become ‘‘criminalized.’’ Because the purpose of criminal laws is to control behavior so defined, the efficacy—and necessarily the fairness and moral status—of prescribed penalties is subject to challenge and debate in many circles.

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These concerns intersect with controversy concerning the stance of criminology vis-à-vis social policy. They intersect, also, with theoretical and empirical issues of mainstream criminology, regarding, for example, the scope of the criminal law and of criminological inquiry, empirically and theoretically, and the extent to which the focus of inquiry should be on particular crimes, patterns of crime (e.g., careers), the broader field of deviance or, indeed, on all human behavior. General theories that attempt to explain deviance, such as Robert K. Merton’s classic ‘‘Social Structure and Anomie’’ (1938) and, more recently, Charles Tittle’s Control Balance theory (1995), imply theoretical explanations for all human behavior. Control theories tend to regard behavior that is not deviant as residual, to be explained by processes and forces that are left undefined.

Because human behavior is ever-changing in response to social change, the search for general etiological principles is both extraordinarily complex and changing. New technologies, evolving social structures, and cultural adaptations constantly pose new questions, and modify social distributions of crime and etiological processes.

This research paper focuses primarily on issues—some persisting, some emergent—related to elements of Edwin Sutherland’s classic definition of criminology. Criminology, wrote Sutherland, is ‘‘the body of knowledge regarding . . . crime as a social phenomenon,’’ including ‘‘the processes of making laws, of breaking laws, and of reacting toward the breaking of laws’’ (p. 3). The inclusiveness of Sutherland’s vision notwithstanding, controversy continues concerning the scope and purposes of criminology.

Models of Criminology and Ideology

Although Sutherland’s definition of the field was broad enough to accommodate all scientific approaches to the study of crime and criminals, controversy continues concerning a variety of issues: (1) whether—or the extent to which— criminology is an independent or an integrative discipline; (2) challenges to the adequacy of science as the basis of knowledge in criminology; and (3) the role of criminology and criminologists in the application of knowledge. Although they intersect in quite different ways, ideological considerations as well as intellectual concerns are especially important to the latter two issues.

Marvin Wolfgang and Franco Ferracuti argued that criminology is sufficiently integrated, as discipline and profession, to be intellectually independent of other disciplines. In contrast, Donald Cressey argued that although criminology has of necessity been integrative, it can never be independent of other disciplines inasmuch as it must depend on basic knowledge generated by more basic social and behavioral science disciplines. Both positions have attracted followers, and there is a good deal of academic and professional activity independent of other disciplines. It seems fair to say, however, that the vast majority of criminologists regard criminology as necessarily integrative and to a large extent dependent on other disciplines.

Regarding issues 2 and 3, more than a century after his most seminal writings, a variety of ‘‘new criminologies’’ emerged, based in large measure on the works of Karl Marx. These perspectives challenged conventional views of lawmaking, lawbreaking, and crime control. The more radical views challenged science as well (Taylor, Walton, and Young), under several rubrics: ‘‘critical theory,’’ ‘‘post-modern theory,’’ ‘‘peacemaking criminology,’’ and ‘‘constitutive theory.’’ In varying ways, each of these perspectives enlarged upon the conflict theory critique of consensus as the basis for law. In its most extreme form the critique charges mainstream criminology with ‘‘investing in constructing the existing structures of power and oppression,’’ and urges active participation by criminologists in ‘‘replacement discourse’’ aimed at development of ‘‘new, less harmful structures’’ (Henry and Einstadter, 1997, p. 418).

In the absence of convincing data to support such arguments, and because upholding human rights values does not distinguish between ‘‘new’’ and traditional criminologists, this ‘‘human rights’’ position has attracted few supporters. Indeed, many criminologists point to the likelihood that such a broad extension of the definition of crime would exacerbate problems already associated with the political use of the criminal law process. Beyond this, most criminologists do not agree with the basic premise that social science research contributes to a status quo of power and oppression. Quite to the contrary, most criminologists—indeed, most social scientists—choose their disciplines, in part, based firmly on the belief that knowledge will contribute to solutions to crime and to the alleviation of human misery.

Because this belief has proven to be delusive, the second type of controversy (the role of criminologists in the application of criminological, and more broadly, social and behavioral science knowledge) is more salient for most criminologists. Here controversy tends to be based on conflicting models of the relationship between social science knowledge, social policy, and other types of ameliorative action. Morris Janowitz characterized opposing positions on this issue as the ‘‘engineering’’ versus ‘‘enlightenment’’ models of social science. In the former, social scientists enter directly into the design and implementation of programs designed to ameliorate some social condition, for example, a delinquency prevention program or a program to rehabilitate delinquents or criminals. Classic programs of this type were the Chicago Area Project developed by Clifford Shaw and his followers, based on Shaw’s research (see Kobrin), and Saul Alinsky’s more confrontational community organization tactics, as described in his book, Reveille for Radicals (1946). More recently, the engineering model has proven to be attractive to governmental agencies in many countries seeking advice and participation in programs designed to control crime and delinquency.

The enlightenment model eschews direct intervention in action programs, holding instead to a more traditional ‘‘arm’s length’’ posture regarding the involvement of researchers with social policies and programs. Here the production of basic knowledge concerning human behavior is the primary and sufficient goal. The distinction between social engineering and enlightenment sometimes becomes blurred, however, as researchers move beyond conducting and disseminating their findings to dispensing advice and consultation on policy options, even though they may not actively participate in the implementation of policies.

Research that evaluates the performance and outcomes of programs and policies also falls within the enlightenment model. Here, too, controversy exists, however; for example, concerning the validity of standard evaluation research measures of ‘‘before and after’’ recidivism or crime rates. The basis for controversy lies in the fact that criminal and juvenile justice systems play many roles in the social and political life of communities, as do programs of social agencies that are designed to aid in the socialization of the young or the rehabilitation of delinquents, or that seek to address in other ways problems related to crime and delinquency. In addition, many factors beyond the control of law enforcement and social programs influence crime rates and individual offending. The ‘‘weak stimulus’’ of any particular program, therefore, is likely to be only one of many, sometimes conflicting, influences on individual offending or crime rates. Moreover, the experience of researchers and theorists who have actively participated in program design and implementation suggests that even the most carefully designed, planned, and monitored programs rarely function as designed (see Klein and Teilmann, eds.). A variety of proposals for more nuanced approaches to measuring the results of juvenile criminal justice policy and practice, and of the effects of efforts to prevent offending and change offenders, have been suggested (see Bureau of Justice Statistics).

This type of controversy also occurs in debates over the proper role of scholarly organizations in relation to social policy. Here, also, engineering and enlightenment models conflict, adherents of the former urging that scholarly organizations such as the American Society of Criminology (ASC) ought to go on record in support of, or in opposition to, particular social policies. Failure to engage in social policy debate, adherents of the engineering model maintain, denies the purpose of knowledge building and is socially irresponsible. A ‘‘middle ground’’ position that individual scientists have the right, as citizens, to advise and consult on social policy, is rejected. A major argument of those favoring the enlightenment model, however, is that scientific evidence rarely, if ever, is sufficient to warrant endorsement of particular social policies. In addition, disagreements among organization members concerning which policies to favor or oppose is inevitable. More importantly, because policy decisions are inherently political in nature, the credibility of science and scientific associations is likely to be compromised by policy advocacy.

These arguments are as unending as they are inevitable among scholars and others in democratic societies with representative governments. For scholarly organizations the controversies they spark are often unsettling and they may be destabilizing. Although they seem unlikely ever to be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, scientific scholarly organizations have upon occasion come together in support of a few fundamental principles, such as freedom of research and teaching, and scientific standards. An example of the latter occurred in 1997 when the American Society of Criminology governing board was asked to support a ‘‘friend of the court’’ brief in behalf of an experimental effort to evaluate the efficacy of a treatment program for domestic violence offenders. For ASC, the case posed the issue of whether it was ethical to withhold treatment (counseling) from a control group of offenders who were to be compared with a similar group, randomly chosen, for whom counseling would be provided. The ASC board voted unanimously to support the research on the grounds that random assignment was the best method of determining the efficacy of the proposed treatment (see Short et al.; Feder).

At the most fundamental level these controversies reflect deep divisions among scholars regarding their responsibilities, their integrity, and the integrity of science. For such issues of values science can provide no answers, only relevant information. Although the implications of scholarly research for social policy are rarely clear and unambiguous, the two often seem clearly at odds with one another, leading to the frustration of criminologists and the urge to influence social policy. Regrettably, when scholars do so they often generalize beyond available, time- and place-bound data and theory. Examples from each of criminology’s major divisions are not hard to find.

Sociology of Law and Crime Control

Crimes are social constructions. Controversy concerning the behaviors so labeled—which to include or exclude, and how to define the former—and the circumstances under which invocation of the criminal law is warranted, change in response to legal and social changes. Historically, such controversies have taken many turns, from the status of witches to substance use and abuse (and efforts to enforce statutes related to them); from criteria of citizenship to the legal standing of corporations and other organizations; from ‘‘victimless’’ crimes and common ‘‘street crimes’’ to international commerce and terrorism. Here, only a brief sampling from the vast literature of research and debate addressing such issues is possible.

Hate Crimes

Although the behaviors so labeled are as old as human history, crimes motivated by ‘‘hate’’ or ‘‘bias’’ became a part of the legal and social lexicon of the United States only in the 1980s. By bringing hate or bias motivation under the criminal law, the United States, in effect, embarked on a social and legal experiment to sanction and control behavior that has long been a part of the history of the country ( Jacobs and Potter; American Sociological Association). Although every state passed some form of hate crime legislation in a very short time, there is great variation in the categories singled out for recognition as victims and in penalties for offending. Researchers note that social movements have been important in identifying some but not other categories for protection under hate crime legislation: for example, race, ethnicity, and religion most frequently; sexual orientation, physical and mental disability in several states; age, gender, interference with civil rights, marital status, physical appearance, political affiliation, and service in the armed forces in only a few states ( Jenness and Grattet). Critics point to inconsistency and vagueness in such criteria as major faults of the laws.

Hate crime laws are not the first to reference motivation. Distinctions are made between ‘‘simple’’ and ‘‘aggravated’’ assault, and between ‘‘degrees’’ of homicide, rape, and burglary, for example. Most such distinctions, however, are based on some observable quality of behavior, rather than or in addition to motivation. Hate crimes frequently must rely on inferences drawn from speech or an offender’s associates and reading material, still another basis of ambiguity requiring often questionable inference, and subject to abuse. The constitutionality of such laws has been challenged, as well, based on the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Sentencing enhancement—frequently employed as a device for distinguishing the relative seriousness of crimes—is the most common form of hate crime sanction. Here again, there is great variation among states, most providing for (varying) terms of incarceration in addition to those previously specified for an offense. Other statutes specify as hate crimes behaviors long considered too vague and subject to unreliable reporting and recording for inclusion in statistical systems, for example, harassment, intimidation, simple assault, and vandalism. For all these reasons, critics argue that statistics on hate crimes (required by federal law) are incomplete and lacking either reliability or validity. Such vagaries notwithstanding, some social scientists, journalists, politicians, and civil rights and social movement organization spokespersons argue that the United States has experienced a ‘‘rising tide of bigotry and bloodshed’’ based on hate (Levin and McDevitt). Yet, bias and hate toward selected groups, and behavior related to bias and hate, have a long history in the United States and throughout the world (Graham and Gurr).

Against this background, the rate of victimization of others by virtue of their categorical identity (race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.) in the United States at the close of the twentieth century almost certainly was lower than in the past. Much has changed, however, including the cast of characters.

Labor disputes, for example—once the focus of violent confrontations between union organizers and members and plant owners and officials (often with government connivance and support of owners)—are now subject to regulation, and most are settled by agreed upon legal processes. Although religious prejudice continues to exist, and to be monitored by a variety of organizations, it is no longer as blatant or as volatile as it once was. Survey data suggest that racial and ethnic prejudice has decreased, and legal protections against many forms of discrimination are in place, prompted by civil rights movements— changes that have made it possible for many to escape poverty and enter mainstream society.

Pressure for hate crime laws is related also to the increasing concentration of poverty, especially among minorities living in inner-city areas. The gap between the most and the least affluent has increased in many nations. Scholars also note that declines in the perceived legitimacy of traditional institutions were associated with rising rates of violent crimes during the 1980s and early 1990s (see Harris and Curtis 1998; LaFree). Although violent crimes are overwhelmingly intraracial and intra-ethnic (that is, both victims and perpetrators occur within racial and ethnic categories), biases and fears are fueled by the overrepresentation of these minorities in crime statistics.

Although high crime rates are not associated with most other categories (religion, sexual orientation, age, gender) singled out for protection against hate crimes, all such laws may be counterproductive. Hate crime laws, Jacobs and Potter write, ‘‘are both a cause and a consequence of identity politics’’ that base political and other relationships among individuals and groups on membership in particular categories, thus accentuating existing divisions and resentments (p. 132).

Controversy over hate crimes is not likely to abate in the near future. Especially heinous killings that are clearly associated with racial or sexual orientation fan public outrage and encourage strengthening of such laws. Extreme behavior motivated by bias and hate has a long history— not only in the U.S. but in other countries, often in the form of ‘‘ethnic cleansing,’’ which has become of increasing interest to the international community. It will be important in the future to monitor the effects of ‘‘natural experiments’’ such as hate crime legislation and enforcement, and international attempts to control such behavior. Similarly, we have much to learn from controversies regarding a host of other emerging problems and responses to them: ‘‘assisted suicide,’’ computer crimes and message content, efforts to prevent, halt, or compensate for ‘‘ethnic cleansing,’’ impacts of the globalization of commerce (some of which almost certainly will involve violations of criminal laws and other regulatory statutes within and between nations), and other behaviors that heretofore have been restricted to national boundaries. Increasingly, controversy concerning the legal status of behaviors that were the province solely of nation states is likely to transcend national boundaries, as global processes accelerate throughout the world.

Explanations of Crime—Social Distribution and Causation

Scholars from several disciplines and professions focus on different levels of explanation as they study and theorize about crime and criminals, and participate in control efforts. These differing perspectives give rise to often bitterly contested disagreements concerning the causes and correlates of crime. The macrosocial level of explanation seeks to determine what it is about the structural conditions and cultural variations of societies, communities, and organizations that explains variations in crime rates among them. The individual level seeks explanation of the criminal (and other) behavior of individuals, focusing primarily on biological and personal variations among individuals, only occasionally seeking to understand how macro-level phenomena influence the behavior of individuals. Until late in the twentieth century macro-level perspectives were fairly clearly associated with social sciences such as sociology, anthropology, and political science, as were individual-level perspectives with psychological and psychiatric disciplines. Distinctions between disciplines became blurred when scholars began to realize that their disagreements often were the result of the sorts of questions they were asking; that they were often ‘‘talking past each other’’ as they contested explanatory principles and processes.

Several developments offer the hope, if not the promise, that disciplinary hegemony with respect to crime causation will further erode. Integrative theories necessarily must take into account both macro- and individual-level variables and processes. Emphasis on behavioral contexts brings into focus a third level of explanation that has heretofore been neglected: the microsocial, comprising both characteristics of situations and ongoing interactional processes (Short, 1997). Bridging theoretical levels remains, nevertheless, difficult and contentious.

Theoretical and empirical controversies exist at each level of explanation. Two long-standing controversies seem especially important because they cut across levels of explanation: (1) the role of poverty in crime; (2) the nature and role of youth groups and other collectivities in delinquency, violence, and other criminal activity.

Clearly, poverty does not cause crime. The vast majority of poor people are law-abiding. Yet poverty is associated with crime, and social class and other stratification variables often associated with poverty figure prominently in theories of crime.

Controversy centers on measurement, methodological, empirical, and theoretical issues. Examination of the reliability and validity of measures of crime has generated a large body of research and interpretation. Challenges to the adequacy of official records have led to innovations in such records, such as the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reports, as well as to self and victim reports, the latter having been institutionalized in the form of the National Crime Victimization Surveys in the U.S. and in similar systems in other countries. Researchers often triangulate such measures, and supplement them with observational studies in order to achieve better representations of the nature of criminal activity. Measures of the correlates of crime—including poverty and social class—and of processes associated with criminal activity, are equally controversial (Hagan). Much depends on the assumptions and theoretical linkages that are made by those who study these relationships. We first examine Douglas Massey’s interpretation of possible consequences of ‘‘concentrated affluence and poverty in the twentyfirst century’’ (p. 395).

Massey’s broad historical review notes that the industrial revolution radically changed both the amount and the distribution of wealth, leading to increased density of both affluence and poverty and behaviors and problems associated with each. Citing population trends and research on the ecological distribution of crime in U.S. cities, Massey argues that, in the future, the affluent and the poor will be increasingly segregated spatially, and separated socially. Because social separation typically results in cultural differentiation, crime and violence will increase among the poor, leading to further withdrawal of the affluent and greater isolation of the poor, in an accelerating cycle of alienation between social classes.

Massey’s bleak scenario (which he deplores, but advances in hopes of galvanizing preventive research and action) depends on several assumptions: (1) the continuation of world trends toward urbanization; (2) increased urbanization will lead to increased segregation of the affluent from the poor; (3) crime and violence in poor communities will lead to further protective measures by the affluent, such as gated communities; and (4) that poor communities will be left to cope with disorder with only their own diminished resources. The first of these assumptions seems quite likely, and the second may well be. As Massey acknowledges, however, the last two are by no means inevitable. The association of urbanization with crime is also controversial (Gillis). Moreover, the Chicago research by Sampson and others suggests that proximity of poor communities to those that are more affluent is advantageous to poor communities’ ‘‘collective efficacy’’ with respect to children. Collective efficacy (social cohesion among neighbors and willingness to intervene on behalf of the common good) is, in turn, linked to reduced violence in those communities (Sampson et al., 1997).

These arguments are not necessarily incompatible. Sampson and his colleagues suggest ‘‘that residents take a more active role in child supervision and intergenerational exchange when others around them are doing likewise’’ (p. 647). To the extent that the more affluent seal themselves off from the poor, with gated communities and other security measures, this spillover effect may not obtain.

Time and place limitations of these studies make resolution of controversy impossible. Thus, Sampson and colleagues find that residential stability, as well as concentrated affluence, are important to collective efficacy, and that the advantage of these relationships characterize white neighborhoods to a greater extent than black neighborhoods. Future interethnic, interracial, and social class relationships, as well as residential stability, remain quite uncertain. In addition, global urbanization and its impacts vary greatly along many dimensions, and will continue to do so as a result, for example, of different levels of technological development among nations and cities, access to global markets, political regimes, institutional, and structural and cultural traditions—each of which will influence crime and its control.

The Nature and Role of Youth Groups

Despite decades of research demonstrating that most delinquent behaviors are committed by young people in the company of others, the nature of youth groups and their role in such behaviors remain controversial. In large part this is due to the lack of a theoretically viable typology of youth collectivities—most notably, gangs. So confusing are the varying criteria used by law enforcement officials, academics, and the media even to define gangs that many who study phenomena so loosely grouped under that rubric do not use the term, referring instead to ‘‘cooffending’’ (Reiss; Reiss and Farrington), ‘‘bands of teenagers congregating on street corners’’ (Skogan), ‘‘unsupervised peer groups’’ (Sampson and Groves), ‘‘networks’’ of juveniles who violate the law (Sarnecki), or simply ‘‘delinquent groups’’ (Warr, 1996). Clifford Shaw and his colleagues, whose early work inspired much of the subsequent research and theory concerning gangs, had little to say about gangs (Shaw; Shaw and McKay; Shaw and Moore). Instead they emphasized patterns of friendship, association of younger with older offenders, and the coexistence in ‘‘delinquency areas’’ of organized crime and other forms of adult criminality. Even Frederic Thrasher’s classic 1927 study presents a bewildering variety of descriptions of groups among the 1313 gangs he studied.

The goals of gang researchers vary, often determining the research methods they employ. The most common method used to count gangs in communities, for example, is to seek reports from police departments (Maxson and Klein, 1996; Curry et al., 1996; Moore and Terrett, 1999). Although this is reasonable, given the universality of law enforcement presence in communities, police resources and gang intelligence vary a great deal. It is significant that some participants in the Second Eurogang Workshop (an ongoing project involving researchers from many countries) asked specifically that planned surveys of gangs in their countries not be limited to inquiries of the police.

The consistency of police reports of gang activity suggests that street gangs have spread to many cities and rural areas throughout the United States; yet, many questions remain. For example, although violence accompanies the spread of gangs in nearly all reporting areas, the reported prevalence of other forms of criminal behavior varies greatly. Little is known about such variation. Nor is there agreement concerning criteria for classifying gangs and other youth groups. How, for example, do gangs relate to drug crews, ‘‘wilding’’ groups, milling crowds, networks involved in delinquency, ‘‘tagger crews,’’ punks, socker hooligans, skinheads, bikers, and so on (Cummings and Monti; Klein)? Diversity of gangs—their behavior, organization, inter- and intra-gang relationships and relationships with their communities—hinders generalizations about them. Moreover, gangs change, as researchers who have studied them over time attest.

Police knowledge about change and diversity is variable and uncertain. Importantly, ethnographic studies document variations and changes that are not found in police reports. The age range of many gangs, especially among gangs in inner-city areas of the United States, has changed. Street gangs in some cities in the United States and Europe no longer consist entirely of adolescents, as many older members— unable to find attractive legitimate employment, or finding illicit sources of income attractive— remain active, often in leadership roles. Patterns of gang ethnicity vary among nations and change in response to patterns of immigration and settlement.

Ordinances targeting gang members also raise constitutional issues. Courts have in some cases upheld such laws, but some have been ruled unconstitutionally vague and restrictive (City of Chicago v. Morles). Sociologically, researchers note that gang membership may become a ‘‘master status’’ for police and others, and that it may serve to justify prejudicial attitudes and discriminatory behavior toward minorities (Miethe and McCorkle 1997; Roleff ).

Although it is clear that violence among adolescents is not always attributable to gangs, however they are defined, both surveys and field observations in a variety of settings suggest that similar forces often are associated with the emergence and maintenance of gangs and other violent collectivities. They also share group and collective behavior processes that help to account for diversity and change, and for continuity in the forms taken by such collectivities.

Several characteristics are common to virtually all serious studies of gangs. Gangs are groups whose members meet together with some regularity, over time, on the basis of group-defined criteria of membership and group-defined organizational characteristics; that is, they are nonadult-sponsored, self-determining groups that demonstrate continuity over time. These elements do not include the characteristic of primary interest to law enforcement, that is, criminal behavior. Police are unlikely to be knowledgeable about all of these elements; nor should they be expected to be. Note, also, that defining gangs in this way avoids the logical inconsistency of including in the definition the behaviors that require explanation. Arguments that study of variations in criminal orientation and involvement among gangs avoids the tautology beg important questions regarding the conditions under which a criminal identity is acquired by gangs. Resolution of controversy concerning youth groups is unlikely, absent greater conceptual clarity and theoretical rigor.

Crime Control Controversies

Controversy concerning crime control led, during the last decades of the twentieth century, to the proliferation of new laws and interventions aimed at preventing crime and delinquency, punishing or treating criminals and delinquents. Many of these interventions either were explicitly experimental or accompanied by requirements that they be evaluated. Many such interventions, however, bear little relationship to criminological research or theory.

Political and ideological perspectives frequently enter into both theoretical controversies and crime control policy. Marxist, conflict, and critical criminologists argue that control interventions that fail to address macro-level political, economic, and social conditions are politically motivated by those who are committed to the political, economic, and social status quo. Regardless of their ideological, theoretical, or empirical preferences, however, all criminologists agree that macro-level conditions are important and should be addressed by control efforts.

Sweeping changes have generated controversy at every level of juvenile and criminal justice. Some followed the decline of the rehabilitative ideal that had served as the basis for penal policy from the beginning in the United States—and in some countries dating back to the eighteenth century. Dissatisfaction with the performance of the juvenile court, once conceived primarily as a social service agency, and negative evaluations of treatment programs aimed at rehabilitation, led many to the conclusion that ‘‘nothing works’’ (Lipton et al.). The vacuum left by rehabilitation’s fall has been filled by ‘‘spasmodic and overlapping interest in policies of incapacitation, retribution, and deterrence’’ (Reitz, p. 545).

Yet, rehabilitation and prevention efforts never completely lost their appeal, in part perhaps because of excesses following their abandonment. Prison populations exploded in the United States, out of all proportion to fluctuating serious crime rates and continuing after official rates declined dramatically during the 1990s. Rates of incarceration of blacks increased several times those of whites (Tonry). Widespread disillusionment over these developments, among corrections leaders, affected communities, and others were fueled by concerns over the effects of high rates of incarceration on families and local communities, as well as civil rights concerns, and the high costs of prison construction and imprisonment. Systematic studies demonstrated only marginal and very expensive reductions in crime attributable to high rates of incarceration. Innovation in corrections and crime prevention strategies escalated rapidly. Here we comment briefly on a few of the more controversial of these.

The well-established finding that a relatively small proportion of offenders accounts for a much larger proportion of crimes committed encouraged the hope that identification and incarceration of those relatively few would pay large dividends in crime control. Policies aimed at such selective incarceration have sparked a great deal of controversy and research, of which the most rigorous suggests that scales based on past behavior and experience in criminal justice systems perform poorly in terms of both reliability and validity (Auerhahn). Prediction of high-rate offenders yields unacceptably high proportions of ‘‘false positives’’ of future offending. Ethical issues thus are raised as well.

Restorative justice is an amalgam of ideas and policies aimed at securing justice for victims, offenders, and communities. For victims, it emphasizes restoration of property, physical injury, security and dignity, and satisfaction that justice has been done. For offenders and communities the goal is reintegrative shaming. Offenders should experience shame for their actions through a democratically deliberative process that may involve their family members or surrogates, victims and their family members, and other community members, and through this process be brought into mutual harmony with the community. Hundreds of such programs have been established in many countries. A leading proponent and theorist, John Braithwaite, describes restorative justice as ‘‘the emerging social movement for criminal justice reform of the 1990s’’ (p. 324). Programs exist in many countries, some closer than others to traditional juvenile and criminal justice components. Some begin and end with the police (Sherman), while others involve special court procedures and collaboration with prosecutors. In theory and in practice, however, restorative justice challenges traditional criminal justice systems at every level. Although their effects are as yet inadequately evaluated, they are likely to foment a great deal of controversy and further change.


The appalling monetary and social costs of incarceration—the former more obvious, but the latter even more devastating to families and communities—have led increasingly to the examination of alternatives and to experimental attempts to lessen or compensate for those costs. Community policing, strategies of reintegrative shaming and restorative justice, special courts, focus on ‘‘accountability’’—all, in varying degrees, testify to the continued strength of the motivation to rehabilitate offenders, compensate victims, and restore communities, rather than merely punish those who offend criminally.

The politicization of crime and its control, especially in the United States, constitutes a major stumbling block to innovations such as those discussed. Social complexity and the rapidity of social change, resentment over bureaucratic procedures and intransigency, challenge all social institutions but especially those with coercive power. Some of that power would be transferred to individuals and communities if the goals of restorative justice were realized. The hope, if not yet the promise, is that individual self-reliance might also thereby be enhanced and communities strengthened.


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