Criminology and criminal justice elicit much debate across different societies as a result of the differences in the application of theories that help to explain these areas. While in some societies certain practices might be considered as criminal, in some others such crimes have been legalized and do not attract the kind of backlash and objection witnessed in some societies. As such, criminal justice is tentatively assumed to be a relative practice that is depended on the sociological perspective of what constitutes a crime. This paper is a book review of Steven E. Barkan’s Fundamentals of criminal justice: A sociological view. The paper identifies the theories and practices in criminal justice as explained by the author and how the theories are applicable in a sociological perspective of criminology.
Keywords: criminal justice, criminology, sociological perspective, crime
Book Review: Fundamentals of Criminal Justice: A Sociological View by Steven E. Barkan
Criminology has been at the center of study for a long time, during which a number of theories have been put forward by different researchers. It is also a dynamic part of the society which has precipitated the formation of fields such as criminal justice and criminological theories. In this paper, I provide a review of Steven E. Barkan’s book titled Fundamentals of criminal justice: a Sociological view. Specifically, the paper identifies the theories and practices in criminal justice as explained by the author. It also examines how the theories are applicable in a sociological perspective of criminology.
Barkan explores the social understanding of what constitutes a crime. He observes that crime is relative depending on the social values and virtues. He notes that it has presented some challenges to the interpretation of the criminal justice and the theories and practices in different sociological settings. The author identifies three categories of crime which are sociological recognized by crime experts. They form the premises on which all criminal justice systems are founded; at least in countries where law and order are maintained.
One of the categories is that of crimes that are committed against a person. The theory behind this form of crime states that the crimes involve acts of violence perpetrated or threatened against a person. Examples include robbery with violence and mugging. The second category according to the sociological theory is that of crimes against property which include theft, and particular kinds of damage maliciously caused by other persons such as arson. The third category that the author identifies and which presents a dilemma to criminal justice is what they call victimless crimes. These forms of crime do not involve injury or harm to the person, but the society abhors them only because social tenets consider them to be a crime. An example is prostitution. The author notes that it has been difficult to argue for charges of prostitution in many countries. Indeed, some countries have even gone ahead to legalize prostitution even though a large percentage of the people in these countries still believe that prostitution is a crime.
Barkan, a sociologist and a professor who specializes in criminology and the death penalty, expounds on the sociological factors that contribute to the committing of crime and how these factors are relayed in the delivery of criminal justice. An interesting area that the author dwells on is the criminal profiling, whereby similar crimes committed may attract different criminal justices. Barkan also notes that profiling of the criminal in terms of age and gender can help in identifying the causes of crime and deviant behavior. It can also help in identifying the kind of criminal justice system applicable as well as the criminal theories to be used in meting out the criminal justice. Other factors that the author identifies as influential in the interpretation and application of criminal justice and practice include race, ethnicity, and social class. An interesting fact, which might be explored further, is the claim that age determines the likeliness of one committing a crime. That is, the premise that older people are less likely to commit violent crimes as compared to the youth. This is an interesting fact because the criminal justice rarely recognizes this trend. Whether this is a hint for policy makers to come up with different legal enforcement for people of different ages remains an issue of debate.
However, according to the author, age is an important factor in formulating the trend of social criminology. It can help in understanding the motivation for crime and how the criminal justice should be applied. On the part of gender, the author notes that men are more likely to be arrested for violent and property crimes compared to women. The theories that help to explain this disproportionate crime commission between genders is that the society allows men more freedom than women. Thus, men have higher chances or many opportunities to commit a crime compared to women. In other words, the commission of a crime is a formulation of the society especially on the part of men since it allows them to have more freedom than women. Someone can then ask himself about what would happen if the social freedom favored women. That is, would the cases of crime be reversed so that we have more women engaging in crimes than men? This is a great topic for discussion given that many societies across the world are increasingly giving women more freedom than were hitherto allowed. It brings the question as to whether the society actually permits some people, the men folk, to commit crimes than women.
The other theory explaining this phenomenon is that conventionally, the criminal justice system, led by the police and courts, has been less willing to see a woman as a criminal. Therefore, fewer women are actually arrested and convicted of crimes than they actually commit them. Interestingly, Barkan notes that the gap between men and women who are involved in crimes is narrowing. This is possibly as a result of gender equality, which is generally encouraging women to commit crimes. Barkan’s argument borders on the controversy already identified. Indeed, this could explain why people commit crimes and may have great ramifications on the application of criminal justice and understanding of criminology by the police and the courts.
Barkan raises more questions than answers when it comes to understanding of dynamics of criminal justice and criminology in general. One of the areas that he dwells on is the role that media plays in propounding the problem of crime in society. It is agreeable that given the author’s profile and the scholarship, his work is based on insightful and intensive research. For instance, his argument that though there is a general public perception that the rate of crime commission has increased in the last ten years is a creation of the media. He adds that the statistical analysis of the available evidence shows that crime rates have decreased rather than increased. However, one can argue that media reports from the empirical evidence collected at crime scenes and from court reports do not exaggerate anything when it comes to incidences of crimes. Furthermore, it could be interesting to know exactly the reason why the media in general would be fascinated with crimes to the point of wanting to exaggerate. This is so noting that the criminal justice system itself expects media to assist in sensitizing the public about the dangers of crime and even to help in fighting crime.
From the author’s experience, it is evident that sociological analysis of criminal justice is a multifaceted field. It incorporates different factors that come into play to determine the testability of any criminology theory. Thus, it helps to further or deter the application of criminal justice effectively. It should be noted that sociological perspectives and even the understanding of what constitutes a crime varies across the society as well as through different ages and genders. This is why the author states that there is a need to have different versions for these groups. However, he admits that what is challenging is that the administration of justice is supposed to be a universal practice. This would ensure that people who commit crimes anywhere around the world can be subjected on the same criminal justice.
Barkan uses his extensive experience in the area of criminology to theorize on the factors that influence the sociological perspective of what a crime is. He goes ahead to explain how these factors can be incorporated in the criminal justice to ensure maximum justice to the offenders and the victims of crimes. He explores topics such as punishments and corrections, courts and sentencing, and crime and victimization. His discussion reveals that criminology is an ever-changing field. He also reveals that application of any set of laws in punishing or apprehending crime offenders will take more than just good enforcement by the police of courts. In fact, the society plays a crucial role in ensuring that what is projected as a crime is indeed a crime. This must be agreed upon by the majority of people in that particular society.
However, this does not imply that everything and anything that is designated as a crime is a crime to everyone. Barkan identifies this is the general assumption that the society tends to attach to victimless crimes such as prostitution or same sex marriages, which to others is not a crime at all. Some criminal justice systems have even laws that legally criminalize such acts yet the interpretation of what is and what is not a crime is relative to the individual involved.
The Author’s profile
The author, Steven E. Barkan, is an accomplished scholar in criminology and a professor at the University of Maine. He has served as the president of the Society for the Social Problems and chaired the Law and Society Division of SSSP. Barkan has also been an editor of both Social Problems, a journal of the SSSP and the American Sociological Association’s newsletter in the Collection Behavior and Social Movement section. Barkan’s areas of focus include criminology and a collection of social behavioral movements. He is also involved in feminism, punishment and racial attitudes, as well as public opinion. Barkan has over time published in many notable journals including his “Research in Crime and Delinquency”, “Social Problems”, “Sociological Inquiry”, and “Race and Society”. He has been instrumental in the introduction of statistical analysis to understand trends in criminology, as well as the application of criminal justice theories. One of the interesting findings that he made in his Ph.D. dissertation titled Protesters on trial: Criminal justice in the Southern civil rights and Vietnam antiwar movements was that the government publicized trials in order to exert social controls on the society in general.
Generally, Barkan offers an intensive analysis of how society influences the crimes and also the criminal justice systems that are put in place. The book offers a great source of information for anyone who wants to deeply engage in understanding the dynamics that lead to crimes commission. His work is also instrumental in understanding how the society’s perspectives help to shape the criminal justice system. The book is highly researched and offers illustrations, examples, and case studies of criminal cases that have challenged the criminal justice system in the United States. It emphasizes on what qualifies as a crime and why it is important to explore all the avenues that are available before meting out judgment for a given crime. In general, Barkan’s book remains a good reference material for any person who wants to divulge further in the understanding of how society conspires to bring about the kind of criminal justice systems that we have in different countries of the world.
Barkan, S. E. (2011). Fundamentals Of Criminal Justice: A Sociological View. New York: Jones & Bartlett Publishers.