Thinking Critically about Crime
Published in Social Anarchism #26, 1998
This book originates with people linked to the Division on Critical Criminology which was established as a special section within the American Society of Criminology in 1989. The division sponsors a new journal, Critical Criminology: An International Journal, and this book is one of several in the new Critical Criminology Series put out by the Collective Press. Five sections, which represent "...major trajectories and foci of contemporary criminological theory," make up the book. These are left realism, feminism, postmodernism, peacemaking, and abolition and anarchism. Each section contains three or four brief articles, none exceeding nine pages of text. All are footnoted and some come with a lengthy list of references.
The editors and authors are justifiably distressed by thirty years of failure of the U.S. war on crime. The editors cite the usual grim figures in their introduction. The U.S. prison population increased from 220,000 people in 1974 to 1.5 million in 1994. More than a quarter of these people are incarcerated for drug offenses -- many of them minor. The median federal prison sentence increased from 15 months in 1985 to 24 months in 1994. Currently one in three African-American males aged 20 -- 29 is in jail, in prison, or on probation or parole. The fastest growing segment of the prison population is female, especially African-American female. Etc.
The authors share the belief that there has to be a better way, but what to do about these problems and how to go about it are other matters. Right after Jock Young warns of the evils of generalization from specific research data, we have Elliot Currie introducing the concept of the market society and elaborating on how and why he sees it as a major source of crime. Currie makes numerous broad generalizations in the process. Elsewhere we have feminists calling for the stricter sentencing of women abusers and, later, abolitionists attacking the length of sentences and searching for non-penal means of crime resolution. And we can hardly expect Jeff Ferrell's inclusion of gangbanging in a list of activities incorporating "...repressed dimensions of human dignity and self-determination, and lived resistance to the authority of state law" to sit well with feminists and an indeterminate number of other contributors and readers. To their credit -- perhaps -- the editors are unruffled by these contradictions. They proudly reject group-think and celebrate the diversity of perspectives and viewpoints.
Section one is devoted to left realism. This is a stance that has grown in opposition to left idealism, focused as the latter has been on elite, upper class and corporate crime while seriously downplaying lower class street crime. Left realism recognizes the wide scale and brutality of lower class street crime and acknowledges such crime as a serious problem facing the non-criminal poor. In the parlance of the left realists, street crime is as serious as suite crime. They also employ both quantitative and qualitative methods to study criminal behavior and are active in critiquing conservative criminologists and politicians.
The feminist section leads off with Meda Chesney-Lind and Barbara Bloom's "Feminist Criminology: Thinking about Women and Crime." They begin with an attack on criminology as a discipline because it has been so focused on male crime and largely male victimization. Women were omitted entirely or their roles were distorted. Feminism has changed that by insisting on the seriousness of crimes against women. Less progress, however, has been made in the study of women offenders. The authors insist that gender be the basis for an analysis of criminology and criminological endeavor rather than simply an additional variable among others. They also insist that a critical mission of feminist criminology is to aggressively critique centrist and right wing attacks on women and minorities in a society where crime is now the polite code word for race.
In the subsequent article, Dawn Currie and Anoja Wickramasinghe examine the role of women in the global economy. They focus on female textile workers in Sri Lanka and advocate the use of data on the living and working conditions of actual women. This has been neglected by what they call the masculinist discourse of political economy which, in turn, has made it difficult to create full understandings of the intersections of class, race, and gender. The authors share with some of the other contributors an expanded definition of crime to include economic exploitation and oppressive working conditions.
Postmodernism is the theme of Section III. Bruce Arrigo and T.R. Young seek to fuse the insights of postmodernism and chaos theory. They advocate a new discourse which gives voice to the powerless by challenging the dominant perspectives of the privileged. Arrigo and Young advocate a re-oriented criminology that would respond to street crime through an emphasis on equity and equality over pain and punishment, job training and placement, employee ownership, and buyers' coops.
In "Criminology Meets Postmodern Feminism," Adrian Howe dismisses criminology as a practice hopelessly compromised by its association with the state. This criminology continues to focus on the single offender, personality, mental illness, and family pathology, especially that which can be attributed to the single mother. For Howe, conventional criminology can tell us nothing useful about crime. She dismisses it as worse than useless. In the subsequent article, "Constitutive Criminology: An Overview of an Emergent Postmodernist School," the authors take issue with Howe and suggest that modernist criminology can indeed provide useful insights for a postmodernist criminology.
Section IV is devoted to peacemaking. Susan Caulfield and Angela Evans emphasize how liberating this perspective has been for them because it stresses a reverence for life and the inter-connectedness of all beings. They explain the Native American and eastern roots of this perspective. In separate contributions, two early proponents of this perspective, Hal Pepinsky and Richard Quinney, explain the need for a peacemaking criminology in light of the massive failure of the current system to either reduce crime or rehabilitate offenders. Quinney stresses the central role played by capitalism in creating violence, harm, and injustice. He argues for a path of socialist humanism as the most effective route to combating crime because it is the most effective route to eliminating exploitation and creating social institutions based on compassion and love. The section closes with Brian Gormally and Kieran McEvoy describing attempts to apply the peacemaking perspective to the conflict in Northern Ireland.
The final section concerns abolitionist and anarchist perspectives. The abolitionists argue for major reforms within the criminal justice system which would provide alternatives to imprisonment for many crimes and perpetrators. Various proposals include the abolition of prisons, adoption of alternative dispute resolution techniques, moratoria on prison construction, and the decriminalization of certain offenses. Barbara Hudson discusses these and the issues they raise. One is what to do with with truly dangerous and incorrigible offenders. Another concerns those convicted of crimes against women and minorities. Do we want these people out of prison after so much organization and energy have been expended to have these actions taken seriously as crimes?
Anarchist criminology goes beyond reform and advocates the abolition of the criminal justice system. In "Against the Law: Anarchist Criminology," Jeff Ferrell writes that much harm is committed in the name of reasonableness, and anarchist criminology is first and foremost committed to promoting the unthinkable and the unreasonable. Anarchist criminology cannot be a sort of loyal opposition providing informed critiques of the mainstream. It is a partisan criminology devoted to direct assaults on the state and state authority. Ferrell celebrates the absence of a definition for anarchist criminology, noting that we ought to be suspicious if one existed. He confesses to not knowing if an anarchist criminology could work. It may be that it does not develop beyond an outlaw orientation that floats around and against the criminal justice system. This is okay argues Ferrell because for anarchists nothing succeeds like uncertainty and nothing fails like success. Writes Ferrell, "Complete or incomplete, as intellectual critique or failed moment of visceral defiance, anarchist criminology serves if only by standing outside the law, by stopping short of seductive ideologies of obedience and conformity which undergird it."
Perhaps because of the brevity of the articles, ideas are sometimes not fully developed and alternative programs are not fully described. The authors also provide little information on the degree to which these programs have been implemented and the outcomes. Several authors caution against the co-optation of these alternative programs by the mainstream criminal justice establishment. This is a serious issue which calls for greater discussion than provided. Unless one takes Ferrell's anarchist position, the implementation of reform proposals requires support of law and policy making bodies. The criminal justice establishment can easily adopt some of the alternative proposals found in this book and launch them as part of what is actually a repressive package. For example, the Massachusetts legislature is in the process of passing a new sentencing guideline package. One proposal is that defendants charged with certain crimes may be offered no jail time in return for wearing electronic transponder bracelets. But to go this route, defendants must plead guilty. If they later violate the terms of how they should live under this regimen by stopping off to visit friends, going to a bar, purchasing a small amount of drugs, or even going to church if that is not part of the transponder contract, they go straight to prison for the original offense (on which they were never tried) plus the monitoring violation. Under the current system, defendants may have their charges dropped as a result of negotiation with the district attorney or receive not guilty verdicts as a result of a zealous defense. So, we have to ask, is this a meaningful reform? And for whom? The contributors to this volume assume that alternatives to incarceration are progressive when, in fact, they may not be or the results may be mixed. For example, many states allow for financial restitution for certain types of property crimes. This feature of the law carries a very clear class bias against the poor who cannot afford financial restitution while offering the affluent yet another avenue out of unpleasant situations. There are also questions about the practicality of some of these alternative proposals. Can they work? Do they work? Under what kinds of circumstances? These sorts of questions tend to go unanswered in this volume.
Yet when all is said and done, there is much good thought provoking material here. This book does introduce readers to various alternative approaches to criminology and criminal justice, but not without limitations, especially for the uninitiated reader who may not be familiar with some of the vocabulary, debates, and theoretical positions.
Thinking Critically about Crime edited by Brian D. MacLean and Dragan Milovanovic. 160 pp. Richmond, British Columbia: Collective Press, 1997. $16.95 (U.S.) paper.
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