In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Criminology and Political Science

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks

Criminology Criminology and Political Science
Lisa L. Miller, Kevin H. Wozniak
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0179


As scholars interested in political processes, outcomes, behavior, and attitudes, political scientists generally intersect with the field of criminology when they study the institutions that create and implement crime policy and criminal law, and when they explore the opinions and political behavior of citizens in relation to crime or the criminal justice system. The approaches take many forms: for example, the organization and function of the criminal justice system itself (police, courts, prisons); the political bodies that enact, implement, and interpret the criminal law (legislatures, executives, and courts); the reciprocal relationship between criminal laws and electoral systems, political parties and social movements; and public opinion. While their methods and theoretical foundations vary, political science approaches to criminology have in common a fundamental understanding of crime and justice as political outcomes that are shaped by political institutions, attitudes, and behavior. For this reason, this bibliography avoids delving too deeply into predominately sociological, legal, or anthropological works that do not focus specifically on understanding how political processes (including both government institutions and citizens) confront crime issues. Political science analysis of crime and criminal justice can be grouped into two main periods. Early work in the 1960s and 1970s focused primarily on policing, courts, and prisons as political institutions at a time when crime and violence were on the rise and racial unrest characterized much of the urban experience. The central questions of this research era had to do with public and political responses to crime rates, how criminal justice agencies coped with rising rates of criminal behavior, and the implementation of crime policy. In the 1990s, with the recognition of soaring incarceration rates and an increasingly “tough on crime” approach to policymaking—particularly in the United States and soon thereafter in other developed democracies—scholars turned their attention to the political mechanisms that generated such outcomes. This body of work focuses less on criminal justice institutions specifically and more on broader political dynamics that drive law and policy, such as partisan control of legislatures, public opinion, the presence of minority lawmakers, interest group dynamics, social movements, relationships between elite lawmakers and mass publics, and so on. This more recent scholarship is also more focused on the racial dimensions of crime and punishment, as well as the political implications and consequences of high rates of arrest and incarceration for democratic societies.


These works provide important overviews of various dimensions of the political process and crime in ways that are accessible for a broad audience. Several seek to illustrate, in general terms, relationships between crime rates, public opinion, governmental agencies and offices, and public policy (Beckett and Sasson 2004, Marion 2007). Others emphasize the racial disparities in arrest, incarceration, and other aspects of the justice system (Frampton, et al. 2008; Marable, et al. 2007) while Walker 2011 provides a systematic overview of criminal justice institutions, dynamics, and approaches to resolving crime.

  • Beckett, Katherine, and Theodore Sasson. 2004. The politics of injustice: Crime and punishment in America. 2d ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    An overview of the scholarly literature on the politics of punishment supplemented with descriptive analyses of trends in national crime and justice statistics. Covers several topics, including the history of crime in the United States, the politics of crime control, crime in the media, public opinion, political activism on crime issues, public policy and the war on drugs, and alternatives to incarceration.

  • Frampton, Mary, Ian Haney Lopez, and Jonathan Simon. 2008. After the war on crime: Race, democracy and a new reconstruction. New York: New York Univ. Press.

    Inter-disciplinary group of scholars provides insights into the origins and consequences of the “war on crime.” The volume is particularly focused on drawing attention to how racial and economic inequalities contributed to the political dynamics that created harsh sentencing policies and disparities across race and ethnic populations.

  • Marable, Manning, Ian Steinberg, and Keesha Middlemass, eds. 2007. Racializing justice, disenfranchising lives: The racism, criminal justice, and law reader. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230607347

    Comprehensive text exploring racial dynamics of crime policy and criminal justice practices.

  • Marion, Nancy. 2007. A primer in the politics of criminal justice. Montsey, NY: Criminal Justice Press.

    Overview of the intersection of national political institutions in the United States with crime issues. Includes sections on presidential crime initiatives, major federal crime legislation, federal bureaucratic agencies that deal with crime, campaigns and elections, major interest groups, and research on media and public opinion.

  • Walker, Samuel. 2011. Sense and nonsense about crime, drugs, and community. 7th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Cengrave.

    Comprehensive textbook that reviews up-to-date research on crime rates, explores different views about the causes of crime, and analyzes various political approaches to crime reduction.

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