Right realism first materialized in both America and the UK during the late 1970s and early 1980s. The philosophies behind right realism were influenced strongly by the political stance at the time – what is known as Thatcherism. During this time period, the UK was run by a Conservative Government, and experienced a major shift in economical and political debate, which was arguably symptomatic of the change in the global economic climate. As a result of this detrimental shift, the Government chose to make public expenditure cuts, consequently placing public services in the spotlight (Walklate, 2007). This change transformed the way in which social problems were dealt with, and thus, had an impact on crime control strategies. Social problems, such as unemployment, had conventionally been dealt with through Government investment in the social welfare system, by addressing issues of poverty, which should, in turn, have reduced the crime rates. However, these rates still appeared to be rising, creating an aetiological crisis. Right realists began to argue that crime is an act of free will and therefore individual offenders should receive harsher punishments for their actions rather than being offered forms of rehabilitation (Wilson & Herrnstein, 1985). They also theorised that crime was a real problem within society which destroyed communities and social cohesion, therefore they were seen to pay little interest in different causes of crime, instead they focused on being seen to actually do something about it, for example harsh punishments (Jones, 2009).
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In contrast to right realism, left realism emerged later in the mid 1980s stemming from left idealism as a policy-oriented intercession focusing primarily on the reality of crime for victims. It came as a reaction to the traditional law and order politics and held opposing views to right realist theories. Former left idealists and former radical criminologists such as Lea & Young (1984) began to present ideologies which took a more realistic approach to crime control, and challenged right realists by arguing that the causation of crime comes from a mixture of relative deprivation and individualism which, consequently, created widespread aggression and anti-social behaviour leading to criminal activity. This will be discussed in more depth in the course of the essay. Left realists also reject previous theories, such as the labelling theory, put forward by right-wing politicians as they believe these to be unrealistic (Treadwell, 2006).
This essay will evaluate three of the main aspects of criminology in terms of left and right realism: the definition of crime, the causes of crime and finally the responses to crime. It will focus on how both left and right realists attempt to explain the causation of crime, together with their suggestions for realistic crime control strategies. It will evaluate the areas of these ideologies which share similarities, as well as considering their views which differentiate.
Definition of crime
According to right realists, crime is not a social construction, it is in fact real and the fear of crime in society is completely reasonable (Jones, 2009). They use official crime statistics, such as the British Crime Survey, in order to draw analyses to support the opinion that crime is a problem in society and that it is not just an exaggeration of stories within the mass media. Despite acknowledging that crime as a whole is real, right realists tend to focus on crimes that they view as being ‘visible’, for example street crimes and burglary. These crimes tend to produce more fear among the public (Hopkins Burke, 2005) as they are crimes which arguably occur more often to the average person. Right realists thus pay little attention to crimes that are viewed as being ‘victimless’, such as white-collar offences. However, these crimes can be just as harmful, as evidence shows that organisations lose an estimated 5% of their revenue to fraud every year (Sutherland, 2002; ACFE, 2012). This under-representation of attention to ‘victimless’ crimes may be due to right realists’ use of only official statistics in their assessment of crime. ‘Victimless’ crimes may be harder to detect, thus it would appear that they rarely emerge in official recorded statistics (Dutcher, 2005). It may also be because victims are often required to provide insurance companies with crime numbers in order to make a claim (Jenkins, 2000): hence the rise in recorded street crimes such as property and vehicle theft.
Left realists also hold similar ideologies towards the definition of crime. They too, argue that crime is a real problem that needs to be taken seriously, and it affects those in relative deprivation much more seriously than the affluent (Young, 1997). However, they believe that official statistics such as the British Crime Survey do not provide a realistic representation of crime. Left realists argue that many crimes go unreported to the authorities, so rely heavily on victim surveys. Thus these surveys produce a wider picture of the amount of crimes that actually occur (Young & Mathews, 1992).However, critics of left realists often argue that they put too much emphasis on the victims, and sideline the offender, giving them a peripheral role in their theories (Young, 1996). In parallel to right realists, left realists also focus their attention on visible crimes, for example, street crimes, rather than corporate and white collar crimes. They both believe that it is important for politicians to address issues causing street crime as they are the crimes of most public concern (ibid). However, unlike right realists, left realists suggest that in order to fully respond to the problem of crime, the Criminal Justice process should address all the aspects involved and affected by crime: the offender, the victim, the Criminal Justice System and the general public. This is discussed further during this essay. Despite acknowledging all aspects of the Criminal Justice System, it can be argued that because the work of left realists is reliant on victims’ surveys, they too, ignore crimes such as domestic violence, female-perpetrated offences, and crimes where someone may not realise they have been a victim, as these are not always present in victim surveys (Jones, 2009; Dragiewicz, 2010).
The cause of crime
The causation of crime is a central topic of criminological debate. As stated by right realists, crime is an act of free will in which individuals make a choice to engage in, and can be a result of feckless socialisation (Wilson & Hernstein, 1985). By using this argument, it can be pointed out that a disproportionate amount of criminal offences are committed by young males living in city centres due to the poor socialisation that they have experienced (ibid). Several right realists also believe that some individuals are more likely to engage in crime due to their genetic make-up (Tierney, 2009). Thus, right realism argues that criminality is a result of a mixture between biological and social environment. However, Wilson (1985) argues that this is slightly conflicting, as if an individual is predisposed towards committing a crime, then surely they themselves cannot be fully responsible for their actions.
The causation of crime being down to social environment and biological factors is supported by Murray’s (1990) ‘underclass’ thesis, which describes how members of the underclass choose a criminal lifestyle because of the Government’s generous treatment of the unemployed, and arguably, the lenience shown towards criminals, leading them into a culture of worklessness and criminal careers. He contended that this group within society has an inability to teach their children social norms and values, thus passing down the culture of worklessness. This is supported by Lewis (1961) who suggested that if children learn certain survival mechanisms early in life, such as stealing, then they are less likely to succeed in future life, thus, potentially leading them to a criminal career. However, this is rejected by Shildrick et al. (2012), through their empirical research, which found that there was no evidence in their sample to suggest that cultures of worklessness are passed down by generations. In fact, many of their participants showed signs of strong working values which disagrees with ideologies of the underclass thesis. Another critique of this concept is that it marginalises the poor into one aggregate group, misrepresenting the reality that not all individuals from poor backgrounds turn to criminal lifestyles (Cameron et al., 2012). Despite these criticisms, the underclass thesis has been hugely influential on Government and Criminal Justice policies, as Murray (2003) proposed that harsher treatment of criminals will deter the ‘underclass’ from readily committing crimes and may change their attitudes. This theory conflicts with the ideologies of left realists as they argue that more attention needs to be paid to protecting victims rather than just giving harsher punishments (Lea, 2010). This is discussed further during the essay.
The lack of social norms present in the’ underclass’ thesis are also present in the broken window theory (Wilson & Kelling, 2003). This right realism theory presented the concept that within a community, there may be signs such as broken windows and other forms of vandalism, which create an image that crime is acceptable in that area. Consequently, the incivilities according to this theory encourage more people into criminal activities, and make this form of behaviour a norm in society. Right realists argue that such behaviour also stems from the disrespect for Criminal Justice authorities. Arguably, if the police are not taken seriously by individuals, they clearly do not act as an effective deterrent (Wilson, 2003). Historically, crime was constructed by Marxists as a conflict between the bourgeoisie and proletarians. It was the working class who were heavily policed during the 19th Century, which is often still the case in the present day (Foucault, 1997; Matthews, 2009). Thus, it is unsurprising that theories of right realism share similar constructs as they were developed during the same time period which viewed the working class as being responsible for the majority of crime. Despite little research on the broken window theory, like the underclass thesis, it attracted the attention of politicians and became very influential in their development of policies which addressed anti-social behaviour in the community and increase severity of punishments (Hopkins Burke, 2009). This reaction, involving mainly just the offender and the Criminal Justice System, differs from theories expressed by left realists, who believe that in order to tackle crime completely, policies need to include all the various aspects involved and not just an offender-centred view. This leads on to their key argument involving the ‘square of crime’.
Lea (2010) theorised that left realism attempts to depict the interactions between the offender, victims, law enforcement and the wider community in a ‘square of crime’, which is something that right realists fail to acknowledge. This key left realist argument focuses on how crime comes to be in existence and is analysed using the interaction of these four elements (see diagram over page) (Lea, 1992). In this sense, left realists were adamant that the police need to be part of the community and reflect their needs rather than just meeting the governmental targets. Thus, crime is a reaction derived from the poor social relationships amidst each of the elements in the square. As Young (n/d) argues, it is the relationship between the offender and the victim which actuates the impact of a particular crime, the relationship between the offender and the Criminal Justice System which effects recidivism, and the relationship between the Criminal Justice agencies and the wider community which determines the efficiency of crime control and policing. Therefore, this theory looks at how the interaction between each of these elements of the square has an impact on the existence of criminality. For example, if the relationship between the offender and the Criminal Justice agencies is poor, then this may cause increased rates of recidivism, thus increasing overall crime rates. This is a contradiction to right realist ideology, which places the blame of crime primarily with the responsibility of the offender, and does not acknowledge how there are other elements which may also cause a crime to occur.
Left realists ‘square of crime’
When looking at the concepts presented by right realists earlier in the essay, they largely focused on street crimes, viewing criminals as being from the underclass. Left realists challenge this opinion by using Merton’s (1968) strain theory to explain crime. This theory suggests that capitalism drives some individuals to desire certain things in life, for example, material possessions and having a high income, however these are not always met, which consequently causes a strain. This strain then causes them to turn to crime, commonly acquisitive property crimes, in order to achieve these expectations. Conversely, Young (2007) has more recently drawn attention to crime being a result of desire for excitement and thrill, rather than just materialistic gain. Such criminals are not interested in gaining something physical from the criminal act, but see it more as a form of excitement to replace feelings of boredom, which makes the strain theory invalid for some such criminals. Nonetheless some left realists continue to argue that the strain felt by some individuals can be present in all levels of social class, as there will always be social expectations, no matter what class status someone holds (Langton & Piquero, 2007). This proves that crime can be committed by members of every social-class level, and not just by the ‘underclass’, as is argued by right realists. In association with this theory, left realists argue that the concept of relative deprivation also causes crime. This is described as taking place when poverty and resources are allocated unfairly. As a result, people resort to crime to provide a solution to this unfair allocation of resources (Schwartz & DeKeseredy, 2010). This theory normally refers to people who are from the working class, although, Lea (1992) acknowledges that this inability to achieve life goals and successes again exists throughout all social classes. However, left realists do share opinions with right realists in the sense that they accept that criminals are accountable somewhat for their own actions and agree that there is an element of free will involved in criminal activity. However, they strongly maintain that the social elements stated above do act as the reason for choosing to commit a crime (Lea & Young, 2003).
The preceding left realist opinion is evident in another of their key arguments, relating to marginalisation. They believe that there is a social prejudice which marginalizes particular sections of society. These groups tend to lack clear goals and have no official organisation to defend their interests, so feel as if they have been neglected by society, and consequently resort to criminal behaviour (Lea, 2010). This is in contrast to right realism, which fails to acknowledge that there are groups within society that are pushed to the outskirts and marginalised and thus experience deprivation at the hands of those seen as superior e.g. the upper class. However, there is a right realist counter-argument of this relating to ration choice, by arguing that marginalisation and relative deprivation theory does not account for those who experience deprivation and poverty, but nonetheless choose not to engage in criminal behaviour (Morrison, 1995). Moreover, this theory contradicts itself by actually grouping the deprived together and not taking into consideration individual difference. While this may be true, the statistical likelihood is that individuals from run down and neglected areas are much more likely to commit crimes, nonetheless, presenting a criticism of this right realist counter-argument (Gabbidon & Boisvert, 2012).
Responses to crime
The potential causation of crime is essential for an understanding of how it should be dealt with. As previously discussed, left realists created the ‘square of crime’ with four elements which can add to successful crime control when effective intervention is present between each element. This emphasises one of the key principles of left realism: that a ‘multi-causal’ approach can help tackle crime control. For example, Lea & Young (1984) theorised that one effective intervention would be to use victim surveys, which arguably provide a more accurate account of crime and its fear in the community, instead of official statistics. It has also been recognised that despite arguments by Marxists, the fear of crime is not just a false consciousness formed by media-influenced moral panics. It is, in fact, based on real life experiences (Tierney, 1996). This revelation was influential in raising awareness regarding the impact of crime on victims, hence conquering their marginalisation and providing them with a voice, which ultimately can help to effectively respond to crime in the community.
This led to one of the most predominant and successful contributions that left realism gave to the study of criminology, namely the revelation that the fear of crime was a social problem in society. By expressing this opinion, left realists believe that if government officials focus on improving relationships between the police, victims and the wider community, then people may be more willing to report crimes (Hopkins Burke, 2009). It can be argued that improving these relationships may also tackle the fear of crime. For example, Jones (2009) claims that if people do not have faith in the police to control crime, then more fear may occur within the wider community. Therefore, it would be appropriate to restore this faith and improve the relationship between the police and wider community in order to reduce the fear of crime. Thus, by using the ‘square of crime’, left realists are able to provide realistic and effective crime control strategies which include every element of the Criminal Justice process. Left realists also draw attention to the effectiveness of neighbourhood watch schemes which result from improved relationships between the police and the wider community. Nevertheless, these schemes hold the preconception that criminals are unknown to the community (Rosenbaum, 1987), and thus overlook the reality of crimes such as domestic violence where the victim is known to the offender. Furthermore, many criminologists reject the arguments of left realists, as they feel that their arguments are just an oversimplified version of left idealism and nothing has actually changed from their theories, as left idealists supported crime solutions involving community groups wanting change to the Criminal Justice System (Marsh, 2006).
Right realists, as opposed to left realists, take a more punitive standpoint when dealing with crime. As discussed previously, they believe that if a person makes the choice to commit a criminal act, then they should be punished. Wilson (2003) suggests that to protect the public from harm, retributive punishment is required for those who break the laws set by the state, and also those who break social norms. Right realism focuses on the need for more prisons, and increasing the duration of sentences, in other words that practicality should be implemented and criminality should be dealt with when it occurs (Wilson & Herrnstein, 1985). They advocate that the police should focus on tackling first-time drug users, rather than drug dealers, the users being the more ‘visible’ criminals in the community, and more likely to be deterred by harsher prison sentences in the early stages of their criminal career (ibid). A critique of this is the much debated argument over the limited success incarceration has in reducing crime (Currie, 2007). It appears that right realists do not consider the degree of effectiveness of prison sentences and ignore alternative punishments.
It can also be argued that right realist theories focus on crimes committed by the ‘underclass’, and it is not clear whether they believe that upper class crimes should also be dealt with in same punitive way, especially as for the past couple of centuries, imprisonment has been seen to be a sanction primarily reserved for the lower classes (Reiman, 2004). As well as increasing the severity of punishment, many rational choice theorists, such as Wilson & Herrnstein (1985), believed that there is a need to increase the cost of crime, in the sense that the cost of getting caught is increased. For example, increasing police presence and security on properties may increase criminals’ chances of being caught and thus deter them from committing crimes in the first place. It is interesting to note that this argument relates to that of left realism, as they argue for different agencies to work together in order to prevent crime from happening. This is similar to the opinion presented by rational choice theorists as if they believe that both the police and the wider community must implement certain crime prevention aspects e.g. increasing security on buildings, then surely that must mean they agree somewhat with left realists’ ‘square of crime’, as they believe that if some elements work together it could decrease crime rates.
This shared ideology is also present in the argument that both left and right realists agree that the police can only do so much to tackle crime. However, instead of increasing police powers which is suggested by right realists, left realists have theorised that more attention needs to be paid to tackling social control which ultimately will help prevent crimes from occurring (Marsh, 2006). For example, if the Government and local authorities are able to provide people with more jobs with a future, this might solve the problem of people committing crimes relating to relative deprivation and the strain theory, as they will have a steady income. Also if the local authorities can improve the quality of community areas, then they may provide a better sense of belonging within the community (Young, 1997), and thus the residents will respect their areas more, resulting in less social disorder which could lead to crime. Furthermore, this is an interesting eco of the broken window theory which presents another point of cross over between left and right realism. Therefore, left realists believe that in order to tackle crime completely, more needs to be done to address the underlying causes of crime rather than just punishing offenders, especially in areas which have high rates of social disorder.
Assessing the main arguments of left and right realism, it is easy to identify the similarities between the two. It was clear from the outset that they both take a practical approach to crime, acknowledging the damaging consequences and seeking material interventions to reduce it. This, as Young (1994) points out, is in contrast to left idealism criminology. They also both attempt to influence criminal policy by providing realistic suggestions of how to tackle crime, and agreeing that the Government cannot just put money into crime solutions without them first being fully researched (ibid). Despite these positive aspects that have emerged as a result of right and left realism, they have both been faced with similar criticisms. One predominant criticism is that both focus primarily on crimes committed by the underclass and those from deprived backgrounds, thus ignoring the existence of white collar and corporate crimes, which are arguably just as harmful (Sutherland, 2002). A similar criticism is presented by feminists, who argued that realism focuses primarily on male crimes, and they neglect women in their study of crime (Dragiewicz, 2010). Marsh (2006) argues that women in society are often denied the same opportunities as men, including taking part in deviant activities, even though it has been proved through statistics that women do also commit crimes. Therefore the theories presented by realists are an unrepresentative view and are only relevant to certain types of crimes, for example, street crimes. Furthermore, they cannot claim to consider the reality of crime, if they, themselves, do not focus on all crimes and types of criminals in society.
As well as viewing the similarities between right and left realism, it is also possible to identify differences between them. One of the paramount differences is that each provides contrasting definitions of crime; right realism sees criminals as making a choice to engage in deviant behaviour, whereas left realism focuses on the impact that relative deprivation and individualism has on communities, which causes them to commit crimes. As previously discussed, this theory acts as a basis for how left realists believe that crime should be dealt with. By developing the ‘square of crime’, Young (1997) was able to show that by improving the relationships between each element (victim, offender, Criminal Justice agencies and the wider community) it can address the issues that cause crime. Left realists also identify that there is a need to address issues of social order which are proven to lead to criminal behaviour. This is a conflicting suggestion for crime control than that which is present in right realism ideology which focuses on a more punitive stance to addressing crime. They believe that criminals make the choice to commit a criminal offence, and that therefore they should be severely punished for doing so (Wilson & Herrnstein, 1985).
In conclusion, regardless of holding differing political stances, right and left realism both emerged as a result from previous criminologist ideologies which were seen as not addressing the reality of crime. They both believe that crime needs to be taken seriously and that fear of crime is not just a consequence of media-influenced moral panics. Realists thus focus on specific crimes which are seen to be the centre of concern within society, and try to put forward realistic suggestions of crime control through social reform (Matthews, 2009). Although right and left realists may share similarities in terms of their intentions, the key arguments and theories they present regarding the causation of crime and crime control differentiate in many ways. Therefore, in order to provide effective crime control strategies, it may be beneficial for the state to reflect on both sides of realism, as well as other criminological approaches, in order to address the wider picture of crime.
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