Chapter 12 – Contemporary Conservative Theories
(The Rise of Punitive Theories)
Context: The United States of the 1980s and Early 1990s: The Economic Decline of the
• Theories are influenced by the issues that are happening in society. As a result, it is important to look
at the historical context when a particular theory was implemented.
• By the close of WWII, the U.S.’s share of the world manufacturing was nearly 50%
o US economy was declining – therefore there was more of a focus on more punitive approaches
• Since it had a lot of resources → during the late 1940s, the U.S continued to extends its military
protection throughout the world. Major supplier of military aid to nearly 100 nations around the
• As military commitments began to increase after 1945, the U.S.’s position in world manufacturing
began to decline
o Large amounts of money was directed towards defense spending
• During the 1980s, defense spending increased rapidly, as the national debt grew at a remarkable speed
o Many predicted that the U.S's world economic position would continue to decline & that the 21st
century would belong not to the U.S but rather to countries inAsia.
o Marxist perspective: focus on the economy
• The U.S. faced stiff international competition in many products (robotics, automobiles, computers,
Varieties of Conservative Theory
• Declaration of war on drugs – zero tolerance for drug use. Severe penalties for drug use. More laws
against drug use.
• Diffuse attention from military spending to drug use. A society where there is a huge economic
impact (unemployment, national debt, etc…) – politically, gov’t comes up with new ways to justify
them. Move the public focus from arms spending to other issues like the war on drugs or the war on
terrorism (ex: wars to mask the economic debt)
• Questioning of the Supreme Court and the kinds of legislations they’re putting forth. Trend towards a
more punitive approach. With this comes more people being incarcerated.
• Some people argue that incarceration reflects the ways in which we define crime and the laws that we
• The focus on the war on drugs reflected on an increase of penalties for drug use.Also, penalties for an
increase of minimum penalties.
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• A variety of conservative theories or punitive theories. Conservative theories could be promoted by
liberal or right-wing party. Ex: the 3 strikes law was passed by the Democratic Party.
• Textbook uses the term ‘conservative theories’
• 5 types of conservative theorizing emerged in the last 2 decades of the 20th century:
1. Revitalize early positivist emphasis on ingrained individual differences
o W/ a special emphasis on defects in human nature or in intelligence as the master predictor of
o Individual differences between those who commit crime and those who don’t
o Biologically different?
o There are new bio-socio explanations – inherent factors that predispose individuals to
o Others focus on body types (re-emergence); diet influencing crime
2. Rise of Rational Choice Theory
o Atheory that conceives individuals as logical actors. That people choose crime when the
benefit outweigh the cost of crime (the risk)
o Promotes the notion of deterrence. Criminal offenders assess the cost of being caught vs. the
benefit of committing crime.
o These old ideas are being re-emerged in new theories like this one
o This theory has given rise to other theories.
o Crime occurs b/c, in our society, it "pays"
3. Revitalize psychological approaches that offenders think differently rather than logically
o Notion that offenders think differently
o They are held to have distinct "criminal minds" that make them pathological, if not
psychopathic & beyond redemption.
4. Crime linked to the permissive culture or moral poverty
o Moral poverty → trace to developmts in the American society of the 1960s
o Moral poverty – secular culture that’s moved away from being religious
o People being too permissive, therefore, that’s linked to crime (ex: rise of LGBT rights)
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o Claiming that shooting games lead to moral poverty where crime is increasing
o However, if that were the case, we’d see crime rates rising instead of decreasing
o Games do not lead to crime
5. Focus on public disorganization or incivility as cause of crime
o Linked to the broken windows thesis
o If you have public disorganization, it’s a signal that will lead to serious crime (Ex:
garbage on the streets)
o Incivility leads to crime not b/c of enduring poverty & other social ills but b/c the police
Logic of these theories (Cont of Varieties of Cons Theory in textbook)
• What makes the above perspectives conservative is not simply the factors that the scholars argue
• Rather, it is these theorists' consistent denial that capitalism or any form of economic inequality or
concentrated disadvantage is implicated in America's crime rate - especially in inner cities - that
defines them as conservative.
• Theories deny economic inequality or concentrated disadvantage populations.
o Ignoring the fact there is an economic decline in the US
• In this paradigm, crime doesn't have "root causes" or, if it does, they are beyond any kind of gov
intervention that would redistribute wealth or extend safety nets to those in need.
• Rather, crime is considered a choice (a rational choice) by individuals
o A choice by individuals who are impulsive, stupid, calculating, raise in moral - not economic
- poverty & are allowed to "break windows" w/o fear of consequences.
o Most often, these kinds of arguments will lead to more punitive approaches
o In the 90s, at the turn of the century, there was an increase of punitive policies
• The policy response is to enhance deterrence and punishment through get tough policies
• These theorists take pains to use their theories to justify interventions aimed at controlling, not
helping, the individuals at risk of committing crimes. There is an implicit, if not explicit, belief that
offenders either are beyond change or are responsive only to painful sanctions.
• Their work thus attempts to "bring punishment back in" to criminology - to argue for its special
• These scholars provide reasons for making formal control & mass imprisonment the preferred policy
for reducing crime.
Wilson and Herrnstein: Assessing Crime and Human Nature (in the textbook)
• Their work implied that certain biological predispositions found disproportionately among the poor
and may be responsible for excessive criminal behavior
• Constitutional factors have an impact on the ability to consider future & immediate rewards &
punishments. For ex, aggressive & impulsive males w/ low intelligence are at a greater risk for
committing crimes than stable, intelligent males.
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• W & H argued that "individual differences" rooted in biology are imp to the extent that they influence
subsequent social learning or how people interpret & are affected by rewards & punishments aimed at
shaping their behaviour.
• The solution to crime (harsher punishments by parents and government to teach morality, punish
offenders more quickly & harshly) could not be backed with evidence, nor did they discuss the biases
of the criminal justice system and how rehabilitation may be better than vindictiveness
o Increase the penalties so that the cost of crime increases
o Punishment sets moral boundaries & teaches right from wrong
o Punishment as moral education almost certainly reduces more crime than punishment as
• W & H didn't consider that efforts to rehabilitate offenders may teach that we should value
compassion & support, rather than anger, in society.
Choosing to be Criminal: Crime Pays
• Rational choice theory → individuals operate by rational decisions expected to maximize profits &
• Rational choice theory's central thesis: People commit crime because it pays– because the benefits
outweigh the costs
• This popular explanation of crime has helped to justify numerous get tough policies
o The result: Get Tough policies
Choosing to be Criminal: Crime Pays: Morgan Reynolds
• According to Reynolds, the reason we have so much crime is that the benefits outweigh the costs
o Need to expand imprisonment
o Helped legitimate get tough policies
• Reynolds denied that most sociological factors as root causes to crime
Crime and Moral Poverty (skipped)
• In addition to approaches stressing criminal minds & the choices that offenders make, some of the
most conservative theorists argue that