Criminology Politics of Crime Control
Michael Campbell
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 August 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 August 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0190


Edwin Sutherland wrote in his Principles of Criminology (1974) that criminology was the study of “knowledge regarding delinquency and crime as a social phenomena. It includes within its scope the process of making laws, breaking laws, and of reacting toward the breaking of laws. These processes are three aspects of a somewhat unified sequence of interactions. The objective of criminology is the development of a body of general and verified and principles and of other types of knowledge regarding this process of law, crime, and reaction to crime” (p. 3). While criminologists have focused ample energy on explaining law breaking and have thoroughly studied policy responses, they have invested much less energy in understanding lawmaking processes, with a few important exceptions. Explaining lawmaking requires an understanding of the political institutions and processes that determine who has the power to make law and of the state institutions that structure the processes of law and policy creation and enforcement. These issues were of great concern to foundational social theorists, such as Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Karl Marx, who grappled with the complex relationships between social groups, power, and government. As the United States increasingly imposed more stringent forms of policing and harsher punishments on offenders in the latter 20th century, criminologists began focusing more scholarly attention on lawmaking. This article attempts to organize this growing body of scholarship by categorizing contributions by the primary mechanism that their research probes in explaining the link between politics and crime policy. Rather than separate American, British, and European scholarship, I have attempted to integrate these vast literatures by grouping them with works that point to similar, primary explanatory factors. By no means does this suggest that work in one category eschews elements of the others; almost all overlap with multiple fields and qualify their emphases with attention to others. Indeed, the greatest strength of this strand of scholarship is its growing emphasis on complexity, multicausality, and historical contingency. This is not to suggest that this corner of criminology has not made some definitive findings—it most certainly has. To understand how and why governments react to criminal offending as they do, one must understand political context. At least in democratic societies, it is impossible to understand why certain nations would or would not turn to mass incarceration or increasingly aggressive policing in response to higher levels of criminal offending without understanding how political processes frame how crime and criminals are understood. This scholarship has helped illuminate how political institutions and those who manage them do not merely reflect inherent social conflicts, but that they directly shape them through criminal justice institutions as well.

Edited Volumes

The following edited volumes provide useful starting points that survey various realms of scholarship exploring the politics of crime. They do not necessarily engage each other directly, but provide useful overviews of specific scholarly realms. Garland 2001 provides a useful introduction to the sociology of punishment scholarship focusing on prisons in the United States and the United Kingdom. Mathews and Young 2003 presents research targeting crime policies and politics in the United Kingdom, while Frampton, et al. 2008 looks at the consequences of America’s war on crime and potential ways to move beyond it. Chambliss and Zatz 1993 compiles chapters that explore criminal law’s links to broader economic and social developments and crises over time. Gray and Hanson 2008 is a useful introduction into the political science literature that operates at the state level.

  • Chambliss, William J., and Marjorie S. Zatz, eds. 1993. Making law: The state, the law, and structural contradictions. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press.

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    Includes scholarship that develops aspects of conflict theory. Chapters utilize historical changes in law to advance social and political theories of lawmaking. Key topics addressed: structural contradictions and lawmaking, ideology’s role in managing contradictions, how law and the state manage dialectical processes, and long-term governing processes and conflict. Substantive areas include immigration and drug law, state crimes, workplace regulation, and white-collar crime.

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

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    Examines some of the consequences of the wars on crime and drugs and considers how this has affected communities and politics. Considers potential new directions that might steer away from warlike approaches to crime. Explores how war metaphors shape governing strategies, race’s centrality in understanding crime and punishment, fronts of opposition and resistance to crime policy and politics. Chapters address historical developments in politics and law, social meaning of crime and punishment.

  • Garland, David, ed. 2001. Mass imprisonment: Social causes and consequences. London: SAGE.

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    Chapters explore links between social and institutional factors and changes in incarceration. Incorporates many primary, contemporary theorists whose work probes why US policies have become so severe. Explores fear of crime and its consequences, imprisonment’s links to diverse social policies, and race and the historical processes of social and political exclusion.

  • Gray, Virginia, and Russell L. Hanson, eds. 2008. Politics in the American states: A comparative analysis. Washington, DC: CQ Press.

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    A useful primer on the socioeconomic and political complexities in US states. Develops nuanced mosaic of regional differences in American states; addresses state-level differences in state-local government structures, executive power, electoral processes, social policies, and problems. Essential reading for state-level research; useful accounting of variation in educational, welfare, crime, and other policy realms.

  • Mathews, Roger, and Jock Young, eds. 2003. The new politics of crime and punishment. Portland, OR: Willan.

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    English scholars examine crime-control policies and the political dynamics that support them. Chapters address the leftist form of new strategies of crime control and their political meaning. Provides critical analyses of drug policy and policing; notes value of alternatives to criminal justice approaches to social problems and their links to politics.

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