Providing a Balance – the Conservative View of Crime and Criminal Justice


For as long as I can remember both students and non-students have criticized me for my “leftist” views and charge me with the failure to provide a “balanced” perspective.  In other words, I do not give “the other side” or the conservative view. My argument has always been that the “balance” (i.e., the “other side”) is provided 24 hours a day in the mainstream media, especially Fox News.  Nevertheless, I have decided to respond to my critics.   Therefore, here is the “other side.” 

The conservative view of crime and criminal justice can be summarized very simply.  People commit crime because they think they can get away with it, largely because the pleasure they get from committing the crime is greater than the potential pain they would receive if caught and punished.  This is, of course, the popular “deterrence” perspective.  From this perspective people refrain from committing crime mostly because of the fear of getting caught and punished.  In order to reduce crime, the pain must be increased so that it is greater than the pleasure received from committing the crime.  In other words, to reduce crime we should increase the odds of getting caught and the severity of punishment.  This way potential criminals will think twice before committing the crime.  To use a popular phrase, “if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.” 

We need to look deep into the American culture to understand this perspective.  One major source for this can be found in the conservative philosophy that has become so dominant in this country.  At the heart of this philosophy is a simplistic view of the world, a world divided into rigid categories of “good” and “evil.” There is a strong belief in “rugged individualism,” meaning that people succeed largely through their own efforts.  According to linguist George Lakoff, behind this view is a view of the family that can be described as the traditional nuclear family with the father in control as the major breadwinner.  There is, under this system, a “strict father morality” which is based in part upon the belief that in order to become a “good” and “moral” person a child must learn to obey the rules and respect authority.  Proper behavior is taught through the use or threat of punishment.  Within such a system Athe exercise of authority is itself moral; that is, it is moral to reward obedience and punish disobedience.”[1]  

According to this view, this system of rewards and punishments has a higher purpose operating here, namely, that in order to survive in a dangerous world children must learn discipline and build character.  Punishment, according to this philosophy, is the only way to become a self-disciplined and moral person.  To be successful requires becoming self-disciplined.  More importantly, rewarding someone who has not earned it by developing self-discipline is immoral.  This is why conservatives are constantly complaining about various forms of welfare, affirmative action, lenient punishments and the like, for they see this as rewarding deviance, laziness, etc.[2]  Of course, this does not apply when we consider various kinds of “corporate welfare” and all the other benefits that accrue to someone born into wealth and privilege.  There is an erroneous assumption that those who are rich and famous did so through their own efforts, with little or no help from others.  Luck and the privileges of birth are not mentioned within this conservative philosophy.

According to the conservative view, there is a “morality of strength.”  Moral strength can be seen as a metaphor.  The metaphor suggests that the world is divided into “good” and “evil” and in order to stand up to evil one must be morally strong; and one becomes morally strong through a system of rewards and punishments which teaches self-discipline.  A person who is morally weak cannot fight evil.  If one is too self-indulgent he or she is immoral.  Welfare is immoral, as is crime and deviance, and therefore should be punished.  Therefore, it logically follows that crime and deviance are the result of moral weakness.  Teenage sex, drug use and all sorts of other “deviant” behaviors stem from lack of self-control.  A person with proper self-discipline should be able to “just say no” and those who do not must be and deserved to be punished.

Students of criminal justice may recognize this argument as being part of the “classical school” of criminology. This school of thought makes these assumptions: (1) All people are by their nature self-seeking and therefore liable to commit crime; (2) In order to live in harmony and avoid a “war of all against all,” people agree to give up certain freedoms in order to be protected by a strong state; (3) Punishment is necessary to deter crime, and the state has the prerogative to administer it; (4) Punishment should fit the crime and not be used to rehabilitate the offender; (5) Each individual is responsible for his or her actions, and thus mitigating circumstances or excuses are inadmissible. 

Part of the difference between conservative and liberal views on crime and criminal justice can be summarized by citing two contrasting models of the criminal justice system: crime control and due process. 

The crime control model is based on the assumption that the fundamental goal of the criminal justice system is the repression of crime through aggressive law enforcement and harsh punishments, including the death penalty. From this point of view, protecting citizens from crime is more important than protecting the civil liberties of citizens. Supporters of this model would prefer that few criminals be set free on so-called technicalities, even at the expense of depriving innocent persons of their constitutional rights.  

The due process model stresses the importance of individual rights and supports the general belief that it is better to let several criminals go free than to falsely imprison an innocent person. This model is based on the assumption that the criminal justice process is plagued by human error and that at each stage individual rights need to be safeguarded. The accused should be accorded legal counsel and equitable treatment, and the discretion of criminal justice personnel, especially the police, should be limited.

 It is obvious that there are people who commit serious crimes.  Therefore, we obviously need to identify the perpetrators and make it so they will not harm others. No one wants serial rapists or murderers wandering around the streets – even “leftists” like me want something done!  Just as obvious no one wants their homes burglarized, their cars stolen, their purses snatched, etc.  

On the other hand, there is a lot left unsaid in the conservative argument.  The most important omission is the question of “why do people commit crime in the first place?”  Is it only the fear of getting caught and punished that keeps us from doing harm to others?  How do conservatives explain the consistently high rates of crime in America – especially violent crime – compared to most other countries?  They cannot claim that we are not tough enough since our punishments are the most severe and we are among a few in the world that use the death penalty.  Quite often conservatives describe crime as if it is simply a choice one makes, not unlike the choices we make of the food we eat.  Why is crime consistently highest within the poorest communities?  Is it because poor people make “bad choices” or is there something else going on?  Why is it that researchers have pointed out for more than 100 years the high correlation between crime rates and various social conditions like poverty and inequality?   

An alternative view of the family and of society is what Lakoff calls the “nurturant family model” (corresponding to liberal thought).  According to this model, children are born good and can be made better with both parents equally responsible for raising them.  In this case, parents should raise children to be nurturers of others.  By “nurturance” Lakoff means empathy and understanding.  From these two core values come other values, such as providing protection, not just from crime and drugs but also smoking, poisonous additives in food, cars without seat belts, etc.  If you emphasize with your child you want them to be fulfilled.  This translates into a moral responsibility.[3]   Studies consistently show that children brought up in this fashion turn out to be happier and more successful and less criminal than those brought up with the strict father morality.  These two correspond roughly to two major types of parenting: authoritative (i.e., nurturant family) and authoritarian (i.e., strict father).[4]


 © 2008, Randall G. Shelden. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced without permission from the author. 




[1] Lakoff, G. (1996).  Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know that Liberals Don’t.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 67.

 [2]  Ibid, p. 68.  Both of these models have been more succinctly summarized in two more recent books by Lakoff:  Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. White River Junction, VT:  Chelsea Green, 2004; Thinking Points: Communicating our American Values and Vision. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.

 [3] Don’t Think of an Elephant, pp. 12-13.

 [4]  For a summary of the literature on the relationship between the family and delinquency see Shelden, Randall G., Delinquency and Juvenile Justice in American Society.  Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 2006, chapter 9.