Criminal Justice Theories

What are criminal justice theories? Strangely, few academics in criminal justice studies would have a clear answer. Despite the large number of academic programs and scholarly works dedicated to studying criminal justice, the field has hardly asked, let alone answered, this fundamental question.

Outline

I. Introduction

II. Criminal Justice Theory: Varieties and Possibilities

III. Theoretical Orientations: Infrastructure Beginnings

IV. Conclusion: Theoretical and Disciplinary Integrity

I. Introduction

What are criminal justice theories? Strangely, few academics in criminal justice studies would have a clear answer. Despite the large number of academic programs and scholarly works dedicated to studying criminal justice, the field has hardly asked, let alone answered, this fundamental question (Bernard & Engel, 2001; Duffee & Maguire, 2007; Hagan, 1989; Kraska, 2006; Marenin & Worrall, 1998). Given that a theoretical infrastructure is the intellectual and conceptual core of any legitimate area of study, the time is past due to begin recognizing and developing a theoretical foundation explicitly intended to make theoretical sense of criminal justice.

It is not that criminology and criminal justice studies scholars are not experienced with theory and the activity of theorizing. Researchers in the field have amassed an impressive body of theoretical work. The focus of this work, however, has concentrated mostly on answering the “why” of crime and explaining crime rates. When the term theory in used in the field, it usually refers to crime theory. Criminology theory courses and theory textbooks concentrate almost exclusively on explaining crime. Theoretical research in the field, as evidenced by the articles published in the journals Criminology and Justice Quarterly, mostly test preexisting explanations for crime. The field’s theoretical infrastructure is built on explanations of crime, not criminal justice.

An underlying assumption in the field is that the discipline of criminology is more interested in explaining the why of crime and thus by nature is more theoretically oriented. It follows, then, that studying criminal justice is necessarily a policy-based pursuit more interested in effecting practical crime-control initiatives, as derived from theories of crime (Gibbons, 1994). Studying criminal justice is tacitly relegated to the limited role of discerning “how to” and “what works”—laudable objectives, but incomplete insofar as understanding the nature of our formal reaction to crime. Dantzker’s (1998) delineation between criminology and criminal justice is typical of this view:

Criminology is the scientific study of crime as a social phenomenon—that is, the theoretical application involving the study of the nature and extent of criminal behavior. Criminal Justice is the applied and scientific study of the practical applications of criminal behavior—that is, the actions, policies, and functions of the agencies within the criminal justice system charged with addressing this behavior. (p. 107)

Are not both criminology and criminal justice studies diminishing their theoretical integrity with this conception? Surely the study of criminal justice, by both criminological and criminal justice scholars, has involved far more than merely describing its functioning and devising means of crime control. There is no reason that the study of criminal justice cannot be approached in the same way Dantzker (1998) views the study of crime. By slightly modifying his quote, criminal justice studies could similarly be viewed as “the scholarly examination of criminal justice as a social phenomenon—that is, the theoretical application involving the study of the nature and extent of criminal justice behavior.” The notion that the activity of theorizing criminal justice phenomena can somehow be excluded is not only erroneous but also highly damaging to the disciplinary integrity of criminal justice studies.

Some traditional criminological theorists might take exception to this view. After all, they would argue, crime theory has already been used as the foundational material for developing models of criminal justice functioning (Einstatder & Henry, 1995). This approach to understanding criminal justice takes traditional crime theories and infers a model of criminal justice functioning based on that particular conception of crime causation. Although modeling criminal justice functioning does shed important theoretical light on the system, even those involved in the activity admit that these models do not constitute the development of theory (Einstatder & Henry, 1995). This exercise also reinforces the notion that there can be no other theoretical foundation for understanding criminal justice behavior besides those preexisting theories designed to make theoretical sense of crime.

Some critical criminological theorists might also take exception. Critical criminology has a rich body of work theorizing the behavior of the state, the legal apparatus, trends in social control, and oppressive crime control policies. In fact, compared with their analysis of criminal justice behavior, explaining lawbreaking has been a secondary pursuit. This is one reason critical scholarship often seems out of place in most criminological theory textbooks: Their object of study—an oppressive crime control apparatus—does not coincide well with theories focused only on crime causation. Even when critical criminologists explore the causes of crime, they most often focus on the oppressive features of how the state differentially defines acts as crime among marginalized groups (again, focusing on state behavior). Seen this way, critical criminology is more engaged in theorizing criminal justice than crime.