Radical Criminology

Radical Criminology

Kenneth W. Mentor
University of North Carolina Wilmington

Radical criminology began to appear on the criminological scene in the 1960s as criminologists began to question traditional criminology in light of political, social, and economic events occurring in the United States. Conflict over racial issues and the Vietnam war resulted in organized opposition to the state, including rioting and other forms of violence. The governmental, along with researchers and academics, sought ways to respond to and control these movements, which eventually led to rapid expansion of the criminal justice system.

Radical criminology may be referred to as Marxist, conflict, or critical criminology. The ideological perspectives defined in the early years of radical criminology continue to serve as a foundation for criminologists interested in anarchist, environmental, feminist, constitutive, cultural, peacemaking, restorative, and other branches of critical criminology. All branches of radical or critical criminology share concepts and principles centered on the distribution of power and ways in which the law protects the interests of the ruling class.

Radical or critical criminologists, many of whom were politically active during the 1960’s, generally adhere to Marxist principles. While Marx did not specifically discuss crime, his writings focused on law, power, and social and economic control, each of which are important variables to consider in an examination of crime and justice. Radical criminologists argue that the law serves those with the power to translate their interests into public policy. Rather than accepting the premise of law as a product of consensus, radical criminologists define law as a set of rules defined and enforced by the state. Critical scholars argue that our criminal justice system neutralizes potential opposition to the state by targeting the actions of those who are most oppressed. In addition to controlling opposition, these laws often reproduce hierarchies that serve the interests of those in power.

Radical criminologists challenge mainstream criminology’s focus on theoretical explanations of the causes of criminal behavior and the measurement of crime reported in the Uniform Crime Reports. The focus on common crimes and individual responsibility, leading to punishments intended to deter individuals from choosing crime, serves the state’s interest in repression. Individual blame also diverts attention from structural models of causation and relieves those in power from accepting responsibility. Radicals argue that the discipline of criminology, the general public, and politicians focus on crime in the streets, allowing those in power to commit far greater criminal acts with little fear of retribution.

Radical criminologists also examine the processes through which deviance, criminal behavior, and state responses to crime are socially constructed. This examination provides insight into the ways state power is used to define challenges to authority. For example, behaviors that threaten the social, economic, and political order are labeled terrorist as well as criminal (Lynch and Groves, 1989). Different responses to criminal acts are facilitated when the state-controlled label of terrorist can be applied. Similarly, the focus on repeat offenders, and long prison terms, has centered on street crime rather than corporate or white-collar crime. This pattern also reinforces the perception that individuals, rather than institutions, are to blame for social problems. In effect, the powerful are able to exert social control on the masses while excluding their own acts and the criminal acts of those who serve powerful interests.

Radical criminology also examines the consequences of crime policies that prevent society from questioning the dehumanizing effects of our social institutions. The justice system is used to create a permanent underclass whose options are limited as a result of contact with the justice system. Thousands of men, particularly men of color, are kept out of the job market or trapped in the secondary market as they move through the seemly endless cycle of crime, prison, and recidivism. At the same time, the justice system creates millions of jobs.

Radical criminologists remain active within the American Society of Criminology (ASC), the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS), and other professional organizations. Radical criminology has evolved, and earned legitimacy within the wider discipline, due to the inclusion of radically oriented sessions at annual meetings and continued contributions to scholarly publications associated with these organizations. Formal recognition came when the Division of Critical Criminology was established by the ASC in 1990. This was followed in the late 1990’s with the creation of the ACJS Critical Criminal Justice Section.

For more information:

Chambliss, W., & Mankoff, M. (Eds.). (1976). Whose law? What order? A conflict approach to criminology. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Currie, E. (1999). “Radical criminology or just criminology – Then, and now,” Social Justice, 26.

Lynch, M. (Ed.). (1997). Radical criminology. Aldershot, England: Dartmouth Publishing Co.

Lynch, M., & Groves, W. B. (1989). A primer in radical criminology (2nd ed.). New York: Harrow and Heston.

Platt, T. (1988). “If we know, then we must fight: The origins of radical criminology in the U.S.” Critical Sociology, 15(2).

Quinney, R. (2000). Bearing witness to crime and social justice. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Schwendinger, H. & Schwendinger, J. (1970). “Defenders of order or guardians of human rights?” Issues in Criminology, 5(2).