II. Criminal Justice Theory: Varieties and Possibilities
Theorizing crime has proved to be a complex endeavor. The object of study is difficult to identify and agree on, a plethora of theories compete for prominence, and determining the strength and worth of these theories is wrought with controversy and conflicting evidence. This description is not meant as an indictment; instead, criminological theory’s complexity and conflicts render it dynamic and intellectually stimulating.
Theorizing criminal justice possibly harbors even more potential for this type of complexity and stimulation. The central reason is the multifaceted nature of the object of study. The entity called criminal justice actually comprises numerous objects of study—including the criminal justice system; each of the major components within that system (police, courts, corrections, juvenile justice); crime control agencies and practices that fall outside the formal criminal justice system (private sector controls, social services); and other participants in criminal justice, including, but not limited to, academic researchers, the media, the legislative body, and the public.
The following questions are just a sample of the types of inquiry scholars pose when theorizing criminal justice:
- How do we best make theoretical sense of the criminal justice apparatus’s (CJA) long-term historical development?
- What accounts for the steep growth in power and size of the CJA over the last 30 years?
- How do we best make theoretical sense of current and possible future trends associated with the CJA?
- On what theoretical basis can we best understand various controversial issues facing the CJA (e.g., racial profiling, death penalty, erosion of constitutional safeguards, privatization, etc.)?
- On what theoretical basis can we best make sense of past and current criminal justice reform efforts, including what drives them and why they succeed or do not?
- How does the CJA affect the larger society in which it operates; conversely, what societal forces shape the CJA?
- How do we best make theoretical sense of the behaviors of criminal justice practitioners?
- What best explains the internal functioning and practices of criminal justice agencies?
These questions demonstrate that the field’s crime theories, because they have been constructed specifically to explain crime, are insufficient for providing adequate answers. Attempting to explain the behavior of the state, public agencies, the criminal law apparatus, trends in crime control thinking and practice, private crime control organizations, and trends in social control necessitate a theoretical infrastructure unique to these unique objects of study.
Numerous approaches to developing criminal justice theory are possible. One was already mentioned: constructing models of criminal justice functioning based on differing theories of crime. David Duffee (1990) took the more traditional approach by attempting to articulate a general theory of criminal justice grounded in the context of local communities. Of course, the development of a grand theory that accounts for all social, political, economic, and cultural influences would likely be an impractical undertaking. His more recent work (Duffee & Maguire, 2007) essentially argues for the same type of theory work advocated in this research paper. Another avenue has been to answer specific theoretical questions about a specific object of study. David Garland (2001a), for example, limits his theoretical analysis to the question of what accounts for the rapid growth of the criminal justice system over the last 30 years (focusing primarily on the correctional subsystem). Other researchers concentrate on explaining individual practitioner behavior—such as why some police officers engage in corruption. Finally, some academics have worked on developing normative theories of criminal justice, concentrating on philosophical principles intended to guide criminal justice practices (Braithewaite & Pettit, 1990; Ellis & Ellis, 1989).