Academic journal article Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics

The Counter-Revolution of Criminological Science: A Study on the Abuse of Reasoned Punishment

Academic journal article Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics

The Counter-Revolution of Criminological Science: A Study on the Abuse of Reasoned Punishment

Article excerpt

Discipline in general, like its most rational offspring, bureaucracy, is impersonal. Unfailingly neutral, it places itself at the disposal of every power that claims its service and knows how to promote it.

-Weber (1946, 254)


In recent years, US criminal justice policies and outcomes have arisen deep concern. Extreme growth, fiscal unsustainability, and racial disparity are widely recognized features of the US prison industrial complex. Overcriminalization, heightened sentencing, police militarization, and the excessive use of force are all additional areas of concern. While it is well understood that these contemporary trends have deep seated political, cultural, economic and historical roots, such trends cannot be fully explained with references to real crime rates or other features of US exceptionalism. The need for reform is popular amongst experts and citizens alike. But, the question remains: Why are such outcomes so entrenched and difficult to reshape? What particular reforms will move towards more socially desirable results? And how can such transitions be effectively implemented?

I argue that this tension between the perceived needs for reform on the one hand, with the inability to substantially reshape outcomes on the other, can be at least partially attributed to methodological patterns in the social sciences dedicated to understanding crime and punishment. There is a lack of conclusive explanations for the causes and consequences of crime, as well as an incomplete understanding regarding the potentials, and limitations of different law enforcement and punishment strategies. This theoretical lacuna is not merely for lack of good science, but rather stems from certain shortcomings in the professional, academic, and political environments within which social science is conducted. Methodological orthodoxies therein elevate and insist upon quantitative analyses at the expense of qualitative, descriptive, and comparative alternatives. When in fact, such latter techniques are needed to recognize and cope with those features of our current malaise that specifically stem from the unintended consequences of policy failures. Hence, amidst such methodological trends, error becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and the potentials for effective reforms narrow.

This analysis draws heavily from F.A. Hayek's (1952) comments surrounding the similar methodological fashions of the economics profession amidst the latter part of the 20th century and fits compatibly with Feeley and Simon's (1992) thesis that actuarial standards reshaped the aspirations of prison managers away from rehabilitation and towards more narrow goals of internal behavioral compliance. When scientism insists upon formal modeling and quantification, political incentives promote strategies and policies that conveniently attend to such standards, thus displacing and, at times, suppressing alternative methods that better appreciate and accommodate processes of institutional innovation and experimentation.

In short, criminal justice failures persist, and reform efforts continually fall short, because the conceptual frameworks that are used to understand crime, punishment, and their surrounding public policies and social outcomes are not fully attuned to the factors that shape such problems. Nor are they well geared to recognize the potentials of certain social processes that may be needed for the discovery and implementation of effective reforms. To some degree, criminal justice failures require genuinely innovative thinking and actions to discover and implement preferable outcomes. Not only do political structures suppress incentives for social entrepreneurship, but the professional, academic, and political establishments also reinforce status quo frameworks and techniques against alternative conceptual approaches. As evidence of this claim, I survey methodological trends across a long swath of criminological history. …

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