Does It Really Work? A Critique of Fear-Based Crime Prevention

By Vrettos, Jim S. | Tikkun, May/June 2010 | Go to article overview

Does It Really Work? A Critique of Fear-Based Crime Prevention


Vrettos, Jim S., Tikkun


THE MASS MEDIA ARE BUZZING ABOUT THE "FRESH twists" that contemporary criminologists are putting on their field's classical deterrence paradigm. Both conservatives and liberals are finding reasons to praise CUNY professor David Kennedy, the patron saint of the new thinking about deterrence, for creating a new approach to crime that stresses individual choice and moral accountability without relying on draconian prison sentences.

Kennedy's operational framework is disarmingly simple: offenders are told to stop their misbehavior and, if they don't, they and everyone in their gang will feel the consequences (the stick). In other words, a gang member commits a crime and all members of the gang will face charges. Variations on this model are constructed to fit whatever group the offending individual is involved in. The social service part (the carrot) is then put into possible play as genuine offers of help are presented to change fives, but only if the offenders accept the terms of the possible consequences.

It's clearly important to counter the trend of mass incarceration in this country. But the criminell justice models being proposed by Kennedy and his colleagues are hardly the panacea they're being made out to be.

The problem? These interventions, like previous interventions grounded in classical criminology, still offer a narrow, fear-based, one-dimensional view of life that rules out the incredible complexity of human interaction and the awe and wonder of the human mind as it relates to the mysteries and vagaries of people trying to transform, change, and become "better" people or those who are struggling to see the world through different eyes. Spiritual progressives, secular humanists, liberal reformers, curious intellectuals, and the mass public should all take a critical second look before embracing this latest twist on criminology. One way to develop a critical perspective on these new developments is to take a closer look at the historical premises and aims of the criminological tradition on which contemporary scholars are building.

European and American sociology and criminology have been mesmerized since their inception by the possibility of uncovering the ultimate scientific explanation for crime and "deviance" (behaviors that violate cultural norms) . Following in the footsteps of their older and more respected big brothers- the biologists, physicists, and chemists who were uncovering the natural laws of the natural universe- the founders of sociology dreamt of doing the same for the social universe : finding that one all-encompassing law, pattern, variable, or cause that would account for and explain all crime and deviance.

Following the scientific method and trying to be as rational, logical, and objective as possible, these largely inductive thinkers went out into the world to collect data that would empirically lead to the social truths waiting to be found and mined by the right person using the "right" scientific research methods and statistics. It was important to them to remain naturalistic- they were committed to keeping their beliefs (if any) in God or religion private and argued that one should not bring God or some other supernatural being into an explanation of what was causing events in the social world.

They believed that this secular humanist, scientific approach would result in obvious prescriptions for programs and policies that politicians, policy makers, and the general public would see as logical and happily institute, satisfactorily "solving" the problem of crime.

Contemporary American criminologists have continued to champion and add to classical criminology- an eighteenth-century philosophy that attempts to understand crime in terms of rational action and to base the administration of criminal justice on the rational, deterrent power of punishment. Originally conceived as a humane alternative to arbitrary and unjustìy severe sentencing and punishment of offenders, this approach was an attempt to achieve administrative uniformity; a scale of punishments proportionate to the objective harm caused by the offense; and support for the idea that the aim of punishment is deterrence, not retribution. …

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