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The best books on Crime and Punishment

recommended by David Downes

Emeritus professor at the LSE's Mannheim Centre for the Study of Criminology & Criminal Justice tells us about the consequences of mass incarceration and a breakdown in social and moral cohesion

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Tell me about Durkheim’s Suicide

This is a great taproot for modern theories of crime in the anomie tradition, anomie being a state lacking social and moral cohesion. It was Durkheim who, in this book, did most to establish sociology as a subject in its own right, by showing how suicide, that supremely individual act, varied in relation to social pressures. He stressed the pursuit of ‘infinite aspirations’ as generating higher rates of anomic suicide, due to the weakening of moral regulation in the wake of economic boom as well as slump. Suicide also rose as social bonds weakened due to ‘egoism’ – there is a higher suicide rate in Protestant countries than there is in Catholic ones. And, counter-intuitively, the rate falls when social integration strengthens, as in time of war. His theories of crime, deviance and control are intensely relevant today in the midst of financial crisis following the crash of 2008. In The Division of Labour in Society, he focused on the ‘non-contractual elements in contract’ – trust, integrity and moral obligations – as the prime source of social cohesion in economic relations. Elementary sociology but ignored by, or unknown to, economists, for whom Durkheim should be compulsory reading. Feral bankers are a far greater threat to civil peace than feral children. Even the neo-conservative Francis Fukayama prefaced his book Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity (1995) with a quotation from Durkheim.

Crime in Durkheim’s view is intimately bound up with the overall nature of society.

This sounds quite bleak.

Well, Durkheim was actually optimistic. He looked forward to the happy ending of organic solidarity.

I see. Now you’ve chosen Cloward and Ohlin’s Delinquency and Opportunity 

Robert Merton Americanised anomie theory in the 1930s, arguing that the strain to anomie was integral to the culture of the USA, as all are encouraged to aspire to the goal of ‘money-success’ whilst only a minority can attain it. In the post-World War II period, the conundrum was to explain rising crime in the context of growing prosperity. In 1960, Cloward and Ohlin integrated Merton’s approach with new conceptions of subculture to fashion a compelling theory of what drives lower-class youths to diverse forms of gang formation: basically, differential opportunities to succeed materially due to structured social inequality. The book proved the basis for a major social experiment on the Lower East Side of New York, Mobilisation for Youth, to expand job opportunities for the most disadvantaged. An enormous $12.5 million was invested in the project in the 1960s and it proved an inspiration for much of the War on Poverty under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Though criticised as over-schematic, the theory retains great force as an explanatory framework, and lends itself well to cross-national study. That is, when opportunities are made available they are seized.

What opportunities?

Jobs. And not shit work jobs, but real training and apprenticeship. In the end it ran out of funds and collapsed. In fact, my own entry into the criminological field was an attempt to apply their analysis to delinquency in London’s East End.


Well, this was in the early 1960s and in Britain we had full juvenile employment, so what we found chimed with Cloward and Ohlin’s theories. That’s not to say that it was a bed or roses but there was a lower level of violence and gang membership than in the US. Four decades later, in the wake of de-industrialisation and the weakening of working-class institutions, combined with the upsurge of what Oliver James termed the ‘winner/loser culture’, we are seeing far greater rates of violence and youths tending towards gang-like formations. These things were constrained by class solidarity in the post-war period and we expected crime to fall with the increasingly comprehensive welfare state and as prosperity grew. Crime had always been associated with poverty, and yet crime suddenly started rising in the mid-1950s, peaking in the mid-1990s.

It’s fallen since then, has it? I would have thought the opposite.

It has fallen extraordinarily and beyond all expectations. Victim surveys, which are probably more accurate than police statistics, say crime is back to the levels of the mid-1980s.


Well before 1993 the Conservatives had reduced the prison population, persuaded by a 1991 White Paper that declared that prison was ‘an expensive way of making bad people worse’. Following this, crime increased 50 per cent in only three years. But this period coincided with a huge recession that sent the crime rate soaring. The Conservatives couldn’t admit that the problem was the economy and Labour, who had lost four elections, joined in with ‘tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime’ which really meant tough on criminals. After Michael Howard’s 1993 ‘prison works’ campaign, crime fell dramatically but, again, this coincided with a dramatic upturn in the economy. By the late 1990s we were back to almost full employment and Labour had brought in the minimum wage. So it is socio-economic factors that are responsible for levels of crime. The other reason that crime has fallen is increased fear of crime. People are ‘upgrading their security’. We were burgled in the 1990s and spent £1,000 putting bars on our french windows. If you live in red alert all the time crime falls, but at a heavy cost. This books shows that opportunity is a key variable. You can’t expect to have a lot of unemployed young men living with winner-loser exhortations to get rich and expect things to carry on as normal.

This one sounds fun: Hobbs, Hadfield, Lister and Winslow’s Bouncers.

Deindustrialisation is the context for this ‘state of the art’ study of the emergent career of the bouncer in the burgeoning night-time economy of those towns and cities hard-pressed to maintain their revenue base in the wake of the loss of manufacturing infrastructure. Hobbs and his co-authors not only accomplished a first-rate ethnography of the ‘informal’ social control of clubbing and bars by those equipped for one of the few growth areas in urban employment. ‘Manchester City Centre now attracts crowds of up to 100,000 people on Friday and Saturday evenings. A liberal estimate is that approximately 30 to 40 police officers are engaged on public order duties at these times, whilst the crowds are simultaneously controlled by an estimated 1,000 bouncers.’ If you’ve got 100,000 people fuelled with alcohol something’s going to happen. They also analyse the political economy which makes clubbing so vital a part of post-industrial Britain. Facilitating this strategy became a political priority, and licensing laws and procedures were transformed in the late 1990s, replacing the judicial criterion of demonstrable ‘need/demand’ for new licences to set up bars and clubs with basically a ‘whatever the market will bear’ principle. No harm in a fun night out, but ‘in the night-time economy, locations that are “bad” for crime and disorder are invariably “good” for business’. The local authorities now control licensing.

This book is written from the frontline of vomit-filled streets and shows how all this has come about. The regulation of gambling moved in the same direction over the past 15 years, ie, away from the British system of ‘unstimulated demand’ to a greater openness, to marketisation.

My father was actually a licensing magistrate and, when I asked him what he did, he said he looked at the place someone wanted to open a pub and whether there was a need for it, where the other pubs in the area were and granted the licence on that basis. That was all thrown out in 1999. You can now have a whole row of clubs and bars. Of course, people are drinking less now because of the recession.

Now we’ve got Western’s Punishment and Inequality in America 

The most compelling documentation of the character and consequences of the cataclysmic rise of mass imprisonment in the USA over the past three decades. Western spells out its adverse effects for black and Hispanic communities in particular – four decades ago, they were 30 per cent of the prison population, now they constitute 70 per cent. ‘The basic brute fact of incarceration in the new era of mass imprisonment is that African-Americans are eight times more likely to be incarcerated than whites… The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that in 2004 over 12 per cent of black men aged 25-29 were behind bars, in prison or jail.’ (p3) Over 2.3 million US citizens, mostly male, are in prison on any one day, a figure so huge it conceals substantial levels of poverty, inequality and unemployment by taking them out of the frame.

In reality it deepens inequality by further diminishing the life chances of the most disadvantaged. Another study, by Jeff Manza and Christopher Uggen (‘Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy’,  2006), documents the disenfranchisement of several million prisoners and ex-prisoners, a factor of increasing importance electorally. George Bush could hardly have become President in 2000 without the impact of felon disenfranchisement laws in Florida which, even on the most conservative estimates, took thousands more votes from Democratic than from Republican candidates. Former prisoners are not allowed to vote for five years after their release. This is not the case in most of Europe and Britain is under enormous pressure to comply. All this means that the whole of international politics is influenced by America’s penal policy – that is, Bush got in, Gore didn’t.

So, how did Obama get in then?

I think people were horrified by the chaotic response to the flooding in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. But McCain probably would have got in if the financial collapse hadn’t happened before the election. Obama is now picking up the flak for a situation he, in fact, inherited.

In the US the impact of mass incarceration on black communities is in effect to roll back many of the gains of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1960s on. Supermax prisons now hold over 20,000 prisoners in conditions of inhumane isolation. Guard labour is an increasing factor in electoral terms to maintain mass imprisonment levels. The prison-industrial complex is now a significant factor in political economy in that the prison staff unions lobby to keep the numbers incarcerated high. The costs of prison have bitten deeply into education, health and welfare budgets.

Nor is there a ‘happy ending’ in terms of crime reduction, which Western estimates accounts for only ten per cent of the fall in crime rates since the early 1990s. The experience of Canada bears this out – Canadian prison numbers have remained stable for two decades, but trends in lethal violence closely mirror those of the USA, though at a much lower rate. The awesome inference is that US falls in crime could have been achieved without hyper-incarceration and the damage it has wreaked on democracy in America.

In Britain our prison population is a 17th as high as in the US and we are at the upper end of the European standard.

This is astonishing. And, lastly, Lacey’s The Prisoners’ Dilemma.

Mass imprisonment in America has stimulated intense interest in cross-national variations in imprisonment rates and the character of prison regimes: is the rest of the democratic world doomed to follow that trajectory? David Garland’s The Culture of Control (2001) sees the logic of late modernity, in both the USA and Britain, as fuelling a ‘prison works’ mentality which translates into far more punitive sentencing. Cavadino and Dignan’s (2006) Penal Systems: A Comparative Approach locates the key difference between 12 societies across the globe in the nature of their political economies. The more social democratic societies of western Europe have rates of prison population only one-seventh of that of neo-liberal America, with Britain’s at the upper end of the European spectrum and drifting relentlessly higher. Both major political parties in Britain are planning a further 10,000 prison places. Lacey integrates these and other findings with an analysis of the importance of political culture as well as political economy. The most notable feature is the contrast between the first-past-the-post adversarial system in the more neo-liberal societies and the more consensual politics of the co-ordinated market economies such as Germany and the Nordic countries. In the former, crime control has become a competitive arms race with electoral implications; in the latter, criminal justice policies are shielded in key respects from partisan politics. Other differences inherent in the greater inclusiveness of social and welfare policies in the more social democratic countries, and in media exploitation of the crime issue.

There is a David Green book called When Children Kill Children that compares the Jamie Bulger case in Britain (when a toddler was murdered by two ten-year-old boys) to a similar case in Norway. In Britain we demonised the children but in Norway there was a protective reaction towards everyone involved, the child-murderers, the families of all the children. The key difference is the political culture. In Norway crime isn’t an index of moral decay and everyone was concerned to protect those involved in an isolated tragedy.

Lacey finds grounds for cautious optimism in the extent to which these countries have maintained penal moderation in the teeth of strong pressures to ‘govern through crime’ and strong welfare states in the face of pressures to privatise and marketise health, education and social services more generally.

January 20, 2010

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David Downes

David Downes

David Downes is Emeritus Professor at the Mannheim Centre for the Study of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the London School of Economics. He specialises in theories of crime and delinquency, comparative sentencing and penal policy, and crime and the labour market.

David Downes at the LSE
David Downes on Wikipedia

David Downes

David Downes

David Downes is Emeritus Professor at the Mannheim Centre for the Study of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the London School of Economics. He specialises in theories of crime and delinquency, comparative sentencing and penal policy, and crime and the labour market.

David Downes at the LSE
David Downes on Wikipedia