Crime Theories and the American Justice System in the United States

Crime Theories, an excerpt from Kimmel and Arson defines crime as “any act that violates a formative code that has been enacted by a legally constituted body,” or the violation of a deviant act that is regulated by a government. The text continues on to explain a few key theories in relation to crime. Robert K. Merton’s 1957 Strain Theory argues that deviance is a by product of inequality, where society puts value on goals, but doesn’t provide equal ways for all to acquire them.

This causes societal strain, tempting those with unequal means to use illegitimate ways to attain these goals. Another theory, proposed by Philip Zimbardo in 1969 called the Broken Windows Theory explains how minor acts of deviance can encourage people to escalate into more serious crimes, as a response to social disorder. Richard Quinney’s 1977 Conflict Theory agues that those in power in society make and enforce laws that protect their own interests, and oppress the lower class.

He argues that laws are applied unequally, giving harsher punishments to the poor, but also that the laws themselves are unequal, designed to keep power with the rich.

Lastly, Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin’s Opportunity theory claims that those with many opportunities to commit crimes are more likely than those with fewer opportunities. Therefore, a lack of means doesn’t explain why more economic status determines who commit crimes, but the geographic subcultures people live in do. Jeffrey H. Reiman of the American University wrote an article called “The Rich get Richer and the Poor get Prison,” where he describes how the American justice system is skewed towards the rich, and the poor are more likely to get arrested, charged, convicted, and sentenced to longer times in prison.

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Furthermore, black Americans make up a body in our prisons and jails that is far larger than their proportionate amount in our population. Reiman states five major reasons for why systemic racism causes different treatment for black Americans in the criminal justice system. Some of these reasons include the fact that black Americans are disproportionately poor, and thus cannot afford better lawyers or bail money. One theory described in the text is Richard Quinney’s Conflict Theory. As previously stated, this theory describes how laws become a tool of oppression, created and enforced by the upper class in order to keep the power within the upper and middle class. At face value, this explains why lower class people get longer and harsher sentences, but it also explains that the laws were created to make sure that they favored the rich.

This theory is based on Karl Marx’s conflict theory, which states that our society exists in a state of perpetual conflict, because everyone is fighting over limited resources, so social order is based on power structures rather than mutual consensus. Quinney applies this to criminal justice, by arguing that laws are created as a tool of oppressing the poor. He cites an example from when he was in college and a fellow student was arrested for stealing a loaf of bread. The judge lets him go on the grounds that he was committing a “fraternity prank,” but had it been “a real crime, if [he] really needed the bread, [he’d] be going to jail for 10 years for theft.” This theory makes sense, because often times crimes are committed by lower class people out of necessity, but they do not receive sympathy in courts for this. Also, people who cannot afford bail are essentially being punished for not having the means to buy their freedom. Another theory discussed is Zimbardo’s Broken Windows Theory, which claimed that minor crimes like vandalism or public drinking work on a social basis, in which pettier crimes create an environment that encourages people to feel justified in committing larger crimes.

The theory overall makes the claim that is crime prevention forces ignore petty crimes, larger crimes will occur as a result. The theory draws similarities to the labeling theory, which claims that people act to fulfill stereotypes assigned to them, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Zimbardo argues that those who see a community as crime-ridden are more likely to commit crime here, much like people who are born to a community where crime is prevalent feel the need to fulfill the role they believe they’re given. However, this theory looses validity, because things besides physical disorder of a community should be targeted when trying to decrease large crime rates. A superficial fix will not completely eradicate crime. If anything, this may just waste law enforcers time trying to crack down on petty crime, when they could be focusing elsewhere. The text claims, “the flaw is that police are left to identify ‘social disorder’ however they want. Without more systematic definition, police can see almost anything as a sign of social disorder and almost anyone as a threat.” This can be potentially dangerous, to allow police to determine what they should prioritize in punishing as important or unimportant. This could lead to them over-filling jails with petty criminals and missing more important crimes.

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Crime Theories and the American Justice System in the United States. (2022, Oct 12). Retrieved from

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