That’s because they operate from a social dysfunction causes crime narrative when the reality is that criminals—in most cases—are people driven by evil intentions; crime in America is primarily a result of individual decisions not social inadequacies, and this article from City Journal examines that failed narrative.
The history of academic criminology is one of grand pronouncements that don’t often prove out in the real world. In the 1960s and 1970s, for example, criminologists demanded that public policy attack the “root causes” of crime, such as poverty and racism. Without solving these problems, they argued, we could not expect to fight crime effectively. On this thinking, billions of taxpayer dollars poured into ambitious social programs—yet crime went up, not down. In the 1970s and 1980s and into the 1990s, as crime rates continued to spike, criminologists proceeded to tell us that the police could do little to cut crime, and that locking up the felons, drug dealers, and gang leaders who committed much of the nation’s criminal violence wouldn’t work, either.
These views were shown to be false, too, but they were held so pervasively across the profession that, when political scientist James Q. Wilson called for selective incapacitation of violent repeat offenders, he found himself ostracized by his peers, who resorted to ad hominem attacks on his character and motivations. Wilson’s work was ignored by awards committees, and criminological reviews of his books, especially Thinking About Crime and Crime and Human Nature, were almost universally negative. In the real-world policy arena, however, Wilson attained significant influence: the Broken Windows theory of policing and public order, which Wilson developed with criminologist George Kelling, became a key part of the proactive policing strategies that would be largely responsible for the great crime decline starting in the mid-1990s.
In short, while academic criminology has had much to say about crime, most of it has been wrong. How can an academic discipline be so wrongheaded? And should we listen to criminologists today when, say, they call for prisons to be emptied, cops to act as glorified playground attendants, and criminal sentences to be dramatically reduced, if not eliminated? Answers to the first question are readily available—and suggest the answer to the second.
Academic criminologists are mainly sociologists, trained in statistics and armed with theories. Though most don’t study crime or violence directly, they have produced useful studies about offenders and the criminal-justice system. Through their work, we know, for example, that criminal behavior is strongly intergenerational, that relatively few people account for the majority of all crimes, and that some offenders desist from crime over time but many others simply change the types of crimes they commit. We also have learned that most offenders are generalists—that is, they commit a diverse assortment of crimes—and that steps can be taken to reduce criminal events by making them more difficult to carry out. Most criminals, it turns out, are lazy.
In other ways, though, criminologists’ lack of direct contact with subjects, situations, and neighborhoods—their propensity to abstraction—invites misunderstandings about the reality of crime. Most academics have never met with women who have been raped or children who have been molested, or seen the carnage wrought by a bullet that passed through a human skull, or spent a lot of time with police on the street. The gulf between numbers on a spreadsheet and the harsh realities of the world sometimes fosters a romanticized view of criminals as victims, making it easier for criminologists to overlook the damage that lawbreakers cause—and to advocate for more lenient policies and treatment.
Evidence of the liberal tilt in criminology is widespread. Surveys show a 30:1 ratio of liberals to conservatives within the field, a spread comparable with that in other social sciences. The largest group of criminologists self-identify as radical or “critical.” These designations include many leftist intellectual orientations, from radical feminism to Marxism to postmodernism. Themes of injustice, oppression, disparity, marginalization, economic and social justice, racial discrimination, and state-sanctioned violence dominate criminological teaching and scholarship, as represented in books with titles like Search and Destroy: African American Males in the Criminal Justice System, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, and Imprisoning Communities: How Mass Incarceration Makes Disadvantaged Neighborhoods Worse.
A quick perusal of Presidential Awards for Distinguished Contributions to Justice, bestowed by the American Society of Criminology (ASC), shows that the winners were primarily rewarded for their left-wing advocacy. They included a judge in Massachusetts who advocated abolishing the state’s death penalty, an FBI agent who successfully sued the organization for ethnic discrimination, and a former director of juvenile corrections in Massachusetts who closed the state’s juvenile reformatories and wrote a book alleging that the system hunted down black men for sport. The society also honored Zaki Baruti, a radical black activist in St. Louis known for his hatred of police and support for leftist causes.
Recently, the ASC’s policy committee sent a mass e-mail to members, asking for help in countering a Wall Street Journal editorial written by Heather Mac Donald, a longtime City Journal contributing editor and a writer known for eviscerating liberal claims about the police and the justice system. Mac Donald argued that because of increased scrutiny and charges of racism, police had rolled back their efforts to deter crime, at least in minority communities, resulting in rising violence in many cities across the country. She called this the “Ferguson Effect,” after the town in Missouri where the (justified) police shooting of Michael Brown, a young black man, in 2014 ignited riots and gave rise to a new anti-law-enforcement push from advocates, the press, and Democratic politicians. The existence and extent of the Ferguson Effect is an empirical question that can be debated. But it is telling that the ASC had never shown any interest in rebutting the hundreds of editorials that repeated factually baseless claims about police shootings or the racism supposedly embedded in the criminal-justice