What Can Political Science Contribute to the Study of Criminal Justice in Canada?

By Riddell, Troy Q. | Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice, June 2010 | Go to article overview

What Can Political Science Contribute to the Study of Criminal Justice in Canada?


Riddell, Troy Q., Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice


Writing over two-thousand years ago, Plato, one of the forerunners of modern political science, posed important questions about authority, power, accountability, legitimacy, punishment and security, and the rights of citizens vis-a-vis the state, which continue to animate political science today. (2) Indeed, when he asked "What is justice?", questioned the Athenian emphasis on retributive punishment (while promoting reformative punishment), and addressed concerns over who guards the guardians, Plato focused on concepts and issues that are intimately tied to criminal justice (Allen 2000: ch. 10; Plato 1955). It is somewhat surprising, therefore, to learn that, in the view of some commentators, contemporary Canadian political scientists pay insufficient attention to criminal justice policy and governance issues (Solomon 1981; Smith 1994).

This article suggests that Canadian political scientists have produced more work on criminal justice issues than is commonly believed but that the body of work is still relatively small. Three particular strengths are manifest in the literature and have the potential to be fruitful avenues of future research. First, political scientists are well situated to address the understudied question of how the creation of criminal justice policy is influenced by political and policy-process factors. Second, political scientists are able to provide important insights into the relationships between citizens and the state and among government actors within the state in the context of criminal justice. Lastly, political science research offers theoretical, methodological, and normative perspectives that challenge perspectives endorsed by many criminologists, sociologists, and law professors who study criminal justice.

The political science literature referenced in this article was located primarily using two means: electronic searches of the three leading political science and public policy and administration journals in Canada (Canadian Journal of Political Science, Canadian Public Administration, and Canadian Public Policy) and a call for research assistance sent out over the e-mail listserv of the Canadian Political Science Association. Though it is difficult to define the field of criminal justice precisely, this literature review focuses mostly on the core elements of the criminal justice system--the police, the courts, corrections, the justice department, and the public safety department--and on literature dealing with criminal justice policy issues, such as gun control. I reference some criminal justice-related policies, such as policies targeting violence against women, but the emphasis on traditional criminal justice policy areas precludes analysing what are considered to be more social policies, even if they are addressed in the Criminal Code (assisted suicide, for example). Likewise, while I note contributions by Canadian political scientists to domestic security policy, I do not canvass literature that is oriented to human security, more broadly defined (such as genocide).

Finally, I recognize that contrasting the work of political scientists with that of criminologists, sociologists, and law professors is challenging because disciplinary boundaries are not always easily compartmentalized. For instance, in the discussion below, I note examples of individuals who have written on criminal justice issues in Canada who hold PhDs in political science but teach in criminology or law. I believe, nevertheless, that the disciplinary distinctions are clear enough that useful comparisons can be made between them. This comparison begins by arguing that political scientists, by virtue of their expertise in the mechanics of government, can help to illuminate how the process of policy-making influences criminal justice policy.

Policy processes and policy development

In the early 1980s, in building upon an article by the criminologist Denis Szabo, political scientist Peter Solomon (1981) encouraged scholars to analyse how the policy process itself contributed to shaping criminal justice policies. …

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What Can Political Science Contribute to the Study of Criminal Justice in Canada?
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