Criminology and Public Policy

II. The Emergence of Criminology

Criminology began as a theoretically oriented field of study. Notably, the early criminologists were drawn from various disciplines (sociology, psychology, medicine) and would likely not have self-identified as “criminologists.” Nonetheless, early writers about the social science of crime, such as Émile Durkheim (in the field of sociology), sought to explain the existence of crime in society. Durkheim and others also set out to explain patterns of crime through the examination of crime across time and place. Shortly afterward, writers sought to explain why some people engaged in crime when others did not. In the late 1800s, Cesare Lombroso, who is often referred to as the “founder of modern criminology,” launched the science of criminology through his explorations into differences between criminal and noncriminal populations. As Lombroso’s biological explanations for criminal offending waned in popularity, the Chicago School, with its ecological approach to the study of crime (and related social problems) emerged as the dominant paradigm in the 1930s and remains influential today. Between the 1930s and today, the field has experienced a proliferation of theories of crime, such that an entire college semester is no longer enough time to adequately address all of the theories that have been advanced to date. There is no one, uniform theory of crime; instead, there are multiple and competing theories. For most of criminology’s history, developing and testing these theories has been the focus of the field.

Throughout its early history, criminologists now and again have attempted to explain some of the mechanisms of justice, but this was mostly a philosophical project regarding the law. Critical theorists (e.g., Marxist theorists), for example, began to take on the justice system, in particular its relation to larger social structures and mechanisms. By and large, though, the core concern of criminology was crime and its causes.

A. The Influence of Criminal Justice

A somewhat radical change in this pattern occurred when the field of criminal justice, related to but distinguishable from criminology, was introduced as a separate area of study. As criminologists continued to study crime and its causes, scholars of criminal justice announced their intention to study the operations of the criminal justice system. Not merely a theoretical enterprise, the academic field of criminal justice sought to understand the problems and prospects of criminal justice, including an assessment of its effectiveness.

An assessment of effectiveness entailed necessarily a concern for how well the criminal justice system worked, which in turn implied the ability to give advice on how it should work and what might be done to increase its effectiveness. In other words, scholars of criminal justice began to enter the world of policy and practice.

The growth of academic criminal justice through the 1970s coincided with the upward spike in crime, the politicization of crime policy, and substantial growth in the size and impact of the criminal justice system. Beginning in the mid- to late 1960s and continuing through the early 1970s, crime rates began to rise quite rapidly.Although today there is debate about just how much crime actually increased over the period, there is little doubt that the perception that crime was increasing rapidly led to elevated fear of crime and an increasing sense of urgency regarding the problem of crime. At about the same time, the foundations of the criminal justice system’s rehabilitative orientation were being questioned, and a new approach emphasizing crime control was offered. Over this period, crime policy became highly politicized. If deemed not “tough enough” on crime, politicians usually saw their political aspirations dashed. Legislatures enacted tougher crime policies, frequently with little to no debate. The new get-tough policies frequently produced injustices (and reproduced inequalities) in ways that criminologists found increasingly troubling. Moreover, criminologists argued that a number of these initiatives were not only theoretically unsound but also ultimately counterproductive.

Increasing concern about the justice of crime policy led to an unprecedented increase in the number of scholars and students whose careers were concerned with criminal justice. Since 1980, the number of doctoral programs offering PhD degrees in criminal justice has increased dramatically, and the number of PhD graduates has increased as well, and still the market for academics remained ahead of the growth curve, as entry-level criminal justice job openings outpaced the number of new PhDs entering the market. The influence of criminal justice on the field of criminology has been quite profound.

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