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Criminology: Modern Controversies - Crime Control Controversies

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Controversy concerning crime control led, during the last decades of the twentieth century, to the proliferation of new laws and interventions aimed at preventing crime and delinquency, punishing or treating criminals and delinquents. Many of these interventions either were explicitly experimental or accompanied by requirements that they be evaluated. Many such interventions, however, bear little relationship to criminological research or theory.

Political and ideological perspectives frequently enter into both theoretical controversies and crime control policy. Marxist, conflict, and critical criminologists argue that control interventions that fail to address macro-level political, economic, and social conditions are politically motivated by those who are committed to the political, economic, and social status quo. Regardless of their ideological, theoretical, or empirical preferences, however, all criminologists agree that macro-level conditions are important and should be addressed by control efforts.

Sweeping changes have generated controversy at every level of juvenile and criminal justice. Some followed the decline of the rehabilitative ideal that had served as the basis for penal policy from the beginning in the United States—and in some countries dating back to the eighteenth century. Dissatisfaction with the performance of the juvenile court, once conceived primarily as a social service agency, and negative evaluations of treatment programs aimed at rehabilitation, led many to the conclusion that "nothing works" (Lipton et al.). The vacuum left by rehabilitation's fall has been filled by "spasmodic and overlapping interest in policies of incapacitation, retribution, and deterrence" (Reitz, p. 545).

Yet, rehabilitation and prevention efforts never completely lost their appeal, in part perhaps because of excesses following their abandonment. Prison populations exploded in the United States, out of all proportion to fluctuating serious crime rates and continuing after official rates declined dramatically during the 1990s. Rates of incarceration of blacks increased several times those of whites (Tonry). Widespread disillusionment over these developments, among corrections leaders, affected communities, and others were fueled by concerns over the effects of high rates of incarceration on families and local communities, as well as civil rights concerns, and the high costs of prison construction and imprisonment. Systematic studies demonstrated only marginal and very expensive reductions in crime attributable to high rates of incarceration. Innovation in corrections and crime prevention strategies escalated rapidly. Here we comment briefly on a few of the more controversial of these.

The well-established finding that a relatively small proportion of offenders accounts for a much larger proportion of crimes committed encouraged the hope that identification and incarceration of those relatively few would pay large dividends in crime control. Policies aimed at such selective incarceration have sparked a great deal of controversy and research, of which the most rigorous suggests that scales based on past behavior and experience in criminal justice systems perform poorly in terms of both reliability and validity (Auerhahn). Prediction of high-rate offenders yields unacceptably high proportions of "false positives" of future offending. Ethical issues thus are raised as well.

Restorative justice is an amalgam of ideas and policies aimed at securing justice for victims, offenders, and communities. For victims, it emphasizes restoration of property, physical injury, security and dignity, and satisfaction that justice has been done. For offenders and communities the goal is reintegrative shaming. Offenders should experience shame for their actions through a democratically deliberative process that may involve their family members or surrogates, victims and their family members, and other community members, and through this process be brought into mutual harmony with the community. Hundreds of such programs have been established in many countries. A leading proponent and theorist, John Braithwaite, describes restorative justice as "the emerging social movement for criminal justice reform of the 1990s" (p. 324). Programs exist in many countries, some closer than others to traditional juvenile and criminal justice components. Some begin and end with the police (Sherman), while others involve special court procedures and collaboration with prosecutors. In theory and in practice, however, restorative justice challenges traditional criminal justice systems at every level. Although their effects are as yet inadequately evaluated, they are likely to foment a great deal of controversy and further change.

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