Author: John Wright and Matt DeLisi
ISBN No: 9780323357012
Review date: 29/02/2024
No of pages: 138
Year of publication: 16/12/2015
Conservative Criminology: A Call to Restore Balance to the Social Sciences
I do know what the two American authors of Conservative Criminology are talking about when they sub-title their work, ‘A call to restore balance to the social sciences’. For a website that covers the authors’ arguments, visit www.conservativecriminology.com.
I recall attending a local history conference in Bristol, and a university criminologist spoke on the then recent (it happened at Easter 2011) riot against a Tesco Metro shop in the inner city Stokes Croft part of Bristol.
Now I happened to know something about this because I was staying in the city at that bank holiday weekend. While not on the scene on the night, I did inadvertently pass the Tesco the morning after while police were still there. Later I took enough of an interest to look into the Youtube footage of the event, some indeed set to music. The criminologist launched into a theoretical left-wing explanation of the riot – the rioters were standing up for and against various things, the usual. When he was done and it was time for questions I asked if he had looked at the Youtube footage of the riot. From his answer it turned out that he had not. That was all I needed to know; he was sounding off on something he hadn’t really studied.
Or as John Wright and Matt DeLisi put it: “A timeless conservative idea is that the interests of crime victims and public safety always take precedence over the interests of the criminal defendant and presumably due process. To conservatives, crime control trumps due process and it should be the criminal justice system, not the criminal’s justice system.” As the authors add, liberal criminologists instead tend to condemn the criminal justice system for various evils or shortcomings, rather than the actual criminals. According to ‘liberal doctrine’ according to the authors, criminals do crime because they have (in some way, discrimination for instance) suffered; they are the victims.
It would also be easy to make a quite different, conservative explanation for the riot – the setting fire to bins, in streets around, and damage to property was simply a crime, deserving of punishment, regardless of the cause of any protest, quite apart from the fear it gave residents and even risk to their safety. Whether the criminologist was coming up with a left or right-wing-slanted explanation doesn’t matter; he was just slapdash, never mind his politics.
But to turn to Conservative Criminology, John Paul Wright and Matt DeLisi make a mild-mannered case that believing and standing for a conservative view of the world, and social science in general and working as an academic, don’t go together. As is only reasonable, given the book’s title, the authors have as much to say about being a conservative as about criminology. Their conservatism is not dogmatic but does believe that change should be slow and gradual; planned. As for crime, this pair of conservatives point to the ‘dirty secret of the criminal justice system’: ‘that there exists an unlimited number of people who should be incarcerated but are not’, people who have done serious crimes but are walking the streets, on probation for example. The price of liberal reform – prompting police to back off – leads to more violent crime, but it’s not the liberals that suffer, the authors argue. Good intentions, bad results.
For saying that the authors complain, early on, of conservatism and conservative scholars ‘being attacked, marginalised, and dismissed by leftist scholars’, they are remarkably and commendably calm about it. Partly for that reason, they make a good case in defence of conservatism, that it’s not a code word for racism or intolerance or, more crudely, being stupid and backward. They suggest that anyone who’s not liberal and tries to speak or publish faces ‘academic mobbing’, meaning that liberal scholars find what conservatives say offensive and harass and bully them. Strong stuff, but what of the media? Is the media truly liberal too, or conservative – think of how gun control and massacres in America are reported?
The authors close with what seems an ironic call for ‘a return to classical liberal principles that once guided our great universities’, of a place where debate and differing views could flourish, instead of only one sort, the liberal left-wing. Readers may feel this is an internal academic affair, given the recent controversy over free speech on campuses or banning of some hate speakers (depending on what you and your supporters define as hateful). Or in other words, universities and lecturers have a problem with being relevant to the outside world and to inspiring a new, more demanding, internet-savvy generation of students (or rather consumers?) to study towards anything.
For the rest of us, the criminology half of the book is more relevant, setting out principles such as being ‘tough’ on some crimes (but also being ‘smart about how we manage criminal offenders’ – in other words, don’t lock people up for the sake of it, as it costs too much; only put in prison those society has to, and let other offenders be kept ‘in the community’). On the electronic surveillance of citizens, interestingly the conservatives might make common cause with liberals, being suspicious of the state or others using drones, and data mining, and CCTV and the like. “Advances in technology are now promising increased public safety but also threatening our privacy.” I would query if conservatives – not Conservatives, as this is very much an American book by two men in the United States – are well placed to apply conservative principles in such a fast-changing world; or perhaps those very principles are what we ought to hold onto, precisely because the change is so fast.
If conservatives are about one thing that the liberals are not, it is that they want the criminal justice system ‘to stop pretending that all offenders are worthy of redemption and lawfully punish those who are not’. Readers besides liberals may baulk at the authors’ suggestion that use of capital punishment should be ‘expanded’ (for the ‘monstrous and pathological’, but who says? and do they ever make mistakes?!). In fairness, these authors are more than blunt ‘law and order’ types; they are more intelligent by that (because they go by the evidence, unlike our friend the speaker on the Bristol riot, who believed what he wanted). They aren’t the only ones; they quote the US website www.rightoncrime.com for example.
Perhaps the best compliment to pay to this well-mannered and argued book is that the authors ought to now write a history or study of criminology from their conservative point of view. It would be a welcome corrective to much else in print.