Key Ideas in Criminology and Criminal Justice


Travis C. Pratt, Jacinta M. Gau & Travis W. Franklin

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    Scattered throughout the history of criminology and criminal justice are a variety of scholarly works that have left enduring marks within their respective fields. For example, it would be impossible to discuss the nature of punishment in the United States (and much of Europe) without acknowledging the profoundly influential work of Cesare Beccaria in his short treatise, On Crimes and Punishments. Likewise, an understanding of crime causation would be decidedly inadequate without recognition of Shaw and McKay's work on social disorganization or Gottfredson and Hirschi's more recent work on low self-control. One would, furthermore, be hard-pressed to explain the recent shift away from offender rehabilitation without affording Martinson's assessment of correctional treatment its due attention. These contributions, along with several others discussed in this text, have carved out unique positions in criminology and criminal justice—they have, in a sense, risen to the top and have become key ideas within their disciplines.

    For the dedicated student, it does not take long to realize that certain scholarly contributions stand out among others. To be sure, it is these works that are usually first introduced to the student of criminology or criminal justice, and over the years various texts have been written to do just that. Identifying and explaining key works is certainly important in its own right, but vital questions still remain. For example, what are the circumstances that cause one work to rise to the top when other similar works seem to have gone unnoticed? After all, many key contributions, however compelling and articulate they may have been, were not necessarily the first (or at times, the most well-developed) pieces of work to address a particular idea, yet they rose up as dominant contributions to the field. Is there something about the work itself that caused it to stand out and to gain an unusual amount of attention? Does social context have anything to do with the apparent success or failure of certain ideas?

    To more fully understand the rich history of criminology and criminal justice, the answers to these questions are particularly important. This book argues that the most influential research in the fields of criminology and criminal justice have earned their status as key ideas for reasons that extend beyond the theoretical developments and general findings of the research itself. Accordingly, this book is organized around a single unifying theme: explaining how two factors—(1) the broader sociopolitical context or climate of the time and (2) the unique style and manner in which the research was marketed to its intended audience—are central to understanding the emergence of key ideas in criminology and criminal justice.

    In doing so, each chapter in this text is dedicated to a key idea, or contemporaneous set of ideas, and adopts an organizational strategy that takes a four-part approach. First the key idea is introduced and explained to provide an essential understanding of its central components. Second, the sociopolitical climate during which the work was written is highlighted to bring attention to the importance of external conditions for understanding the widespread acceptance of the idea. Here it is demonstrated how social context is responsible for propelling some ideas to the forefront of criminology and criminal justice while repressing others from gaining much, if any, attention at all. Third, to more fully explain why the key work, as opposed to similar works, “rose to the top” and became a primary contribution to its field, the specific manner in which the idea was marketed or packaged to its audience is discussed. Ultimately, this provides clarity as to exactly how the key work was successfully disseminated for maximal influence in the field. Finally, the fourth part of each chapter explains the far-reaching effects of the key idea, demonstrating specifically how it has impacted or changed the discipline. This strategy provides the reader with not only a clear understanding of the key works themselves, but also with a complete picture of precisely how and why certain research efforts have come to yield such powerful influences while similar works have gone relatively unnoticed.

    Chapter 1 introduces the book. Theories in criminal justice and criminology, this chapter explains, cannot be viewed as independent of or divorced from the social and political milieu from which they sprang, nor can their content be understood as distinct from their discourse. Criminological ideas catch on because they are consistent with prevailing sociopolitical attitudes at the time, and because the authors of those ideas offered something unique and compelling that other authors working in the same time periods and promulgating similar ideas failed to provide.

    The remaining chapters are organized chronologically, rather than thematically, to illustrate the sequential development of criminology and criminal justice over the centuries and to demonstrate to students how social, political, and theoretical trajectories ebb, flow, and sometimes even come full circle. “New” ideas are rarely entirely novel or unique; rather, they rely on prior theories and either affirm, challenge, or modify those existing ideas. Chapter 2 describes Cesare Beccaria's On Crimes and Punishments and the inception of the Classical School of criminology. The Enlightenment and the American Revolution provide the historical backdrop, and Beccaria's succinct, pragmatic writing style and ability to synthesize various philosophical viewpoints combined to make this treatise one of the key ideas in criminology.

    Chapter 3 describes the downfall of the Classical School in the 1800s as the Positivist School gained popularity. Cesare Lombroso is the star of this chapter. Lombroso, combining existing biological theories such as phrenology with what at that time was the new Darwinian theory of evolution, proposed a theory of the born criminal whose innate atavism propelled him into crime. His vivid writing, massive data collection efforts, and status as the first criminologist to devote specific attention to female criminals as a separate class from male criminals earned him a permanent place in history.

    Chapter 4 outlines the demise of the individual-level studies of crime and the rise of macro-level criminological research. Robert Merton's anomie/strain theory and Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay's social disorganization theory are the focus of this chapter. The American Industrial Revolution provides the sociopolitical backdrop. Merton's theory that crime is spawned by the lower classes' adherence to materialistic standards is contrasted against Shaw and McKay's conjecture that it is the rejection of mainstream values that results in deviant behavior. Both theories have a distinguished legacy in criminology.

    Chapter 5 is devoted to Travis Hirschi's social bond/social control theory and the way in which Hirschi revamped the traditional question of “why do people commit crime?” and instead asked “why don't they?” Hirschi's theory fit well in the post-World War II context of the United States where the booming war economy had created a large middle class, and where rising social discontent and crime rates led this “new bourgeoisie” to claim that the traditional institutions of social order (e.g., families, schools, churches) were crumbling and that the younger generation was out of control. Hirschi also tantalized academic criminologists with a new method of research: empirical-based theory testing.

    In Chapter 6, Robert Martinson's (in)famous “nothing works” assessment of correctional rehabilitation is reviewed. Martinson released his report in the mid-1970s, at a time when conservative politicians and right-wing commentators called for harsher criminal penalties and liberals called for reduced discretion and greater uniformity in sentencing. Rehabilitation appeared to be at the heart of the problem and, as it turns out, Martinson's research provided a rather large segment of society with just the “scientific” evidence they had been waiting for. He was not the first scholar to criticize rehabilitation as implemented in the United States, but favorable timing helped him to become the first to expand his message beyond the confines of academic journals, drawing considerable media attention to his findings.

    Chapter 7 works in tandem with Chapter 6 and covers James Q. Wilson's Thinking About Crime. The disintegration of the rehabilitation monolith left American corrections without a guiding theoretical paradigm, and Wilson quickly interjected a proposed replacement: selective incapacitation of high-risk offenders. Soaring (and, it would turn out, greatly exaggerated) estimates of the crime-reduction potential of selective incapacitation captured public and academic attention and helped usher in the mass incarceration movement.

    Chapter 8 shifts the discussion from corrections to policing with James Q. Wilson's and George L. Kelling's broken windows thesis. People in the United States in the 1980s increasingly complained about the dilapidated, squalid conditions of cities and the seemingly uncontrollable behavior of wayward vagrants and idle youth. Wilson and Kelling spoke to people's fears and legitimized them by arguing that unchecked disorder caused serious street crime. Their theory also put police in charge of disorder reduction, which breathed new life into the policing institution and offered both police and the public the hope of a “quick fix” to the crime problem. Broken windows theory was, and continues to be, enormously popular in policing and the focus of much contentious debate among academics.

    Along the same line of quick fixes, Chapter 9 describes Nancy Reagan's “Just Say No” campaign targeting drug use. The Reagan administration's “war on drugs” launched a series of offensives against the supply side of the drug trade. Nancy Reagan's popularity sprang from her prominence as the First Lady, from her attention to the demand side of drug use, and from her reliance on the politically conservative language of rational choice to depict drug use as a simple “yes or no” decision that would be easy for youth to make and would result in a fast and sure victory for society in its battle against the drug scourge.

    Chapter 10 covers the reemergence of correctional rehabilitation with Andrews, Zinger, Hoge, Bonta, Gendreau, and Cullen's delineation of risk, need, and responsivity as the three components to effective rehabilitation. This group of mostly Canadian scholars was distressed at the Martinsonian wholesale rejection of rehabilitation and collaborated with American criminologists to refute the notion that offenders could not be treated. Hope for rehabilitation was revitalized with the argument that treatment can work if it follows evidence-based procedures and adheres to the three core tenets. Andrews et al. used quantitative meta-analysis to demonstrate what types of programs show positive outcomes and which do not, in an attempt to provide guidance to practitioners and, most importantly, they offered explanations for why some programs succeeded and some failed.

    Chapter 11 reviews the life course theories articulated by Terrie Moffitt and by Robert Sampson and John Laub. Researchers in the years leading up to the introduction of life course theories had specified an enduring relationship between individuals' personal traits and their criminal behavior that allegedly persisted uniformly throughout the life span. This contradicted everything known in criminology about the age-crime curve and the fact that criminality in youth usually does not persist into adulthood. Moffitt offered a theory of why some delinquent youth persist in deviance (stability), while most do not (change), and Sampson and Laub proposed an alternative version that focused on intra-individual dynamic change over time. Sampson and Laub's life course perspective also incorporated elements of Hirschi's social bond theory, thus linking these two key ideas in important ways. Both life course theories were presented in systematic, well-articulated manners that lent themselves to empirical testing, and they therefore became popular quickly in the academic arena.

    Chapter 12 concludes the volume with a brief justification for why certain key ideas covered in this book were chosen to the exclusion of other important works that also, it could also be argued, put forth key ideas. Some of the major theories that were excluded (e.g., social learning theory) are summarized. This chapter also offers a “Looking Forward” section that discusses some promising but as-yet-underdeveloped theories in criminology and criminal justice, any of which may be the next “key idea” on the horizon.


    The authors wish to extend gratitude to Jerry Westby and the rest of the Sage team for their invaluable patience and assistance with this book. We also thank the following reviewers who offered comments on earlier versions of some chapters: Gad J. Bensinger, Loyola University Chicago; Ellen G. Cohn, Florida International University; AnnMarie Cordner, Kutztown University; C. Nana Derby, Virginia State University; Phil Harris, Temple University; George E. Higgins, University of Louisville; Dennis Longmire, Sam Houston State University; Mary Maguire, California State University, Sacramento; Nancy E. Marion, The University of Akron; Jerome McKean, Ball State University; J. Mitchell Miller, University of Texas at San Antonio; Xin Ren, California State University, Sacramento; Tara Kay Shaw, University of Oklahoma; and Scott Vollum, James Madison University.

    We also appreciate Teresa Herlinger for her editorial assistance. Her efforts and those of the reviewers have ensured that any and all errors, misinterpretations, or limitations contained within this book are ours and ours alone … but we really wish we could blame them anyway.

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    About the Authors

    Travis W. Franklin earned his PhD in criminal justice from Washington State University in 2008 and is currently an assistant professor in the College of Criminal Justice at Sam Houston State University. His research interests focus on the effects of race and ethnicity on the processing of offenders through criminal courts, violence in correctional institutions, the causes and correlates of fear of crime, and biological predictors of crime and delinquency. His recent work has appeared in Criminal Justice and Behavior, Journal of Criminal Justice, Feminist Criminology, and Social Justice Research.

    Jacinta M. Gau has a PhD in criminal justice and is an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at California State University, San Bernardino. Her research focuses on policing, including procedural justice, order maintenance and broken windows, and issues concerning race and policing. Her work has appeared in journals such as Justice Quarterly, Criminology & Public Policy, Police Quarterly, and Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies and Management.

    Travis C. Pratt, received his PhD in criminal justice from the University of Cincinnati. He is currently a professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University. (He was previously on the faculty at Rutgers University-Newark and Washington State University.) Pratt's research focuses on structural theories of crime/delinquency and correctional policy. His recent work on correctional policy in particular has appeared in the Corrections Management Quarterly, Crime & Delinquency, Criminal Justice Policy Review, Journal of Criminal Justice, the Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, the Prison Journal, and Justice Quarterly.

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