Both Right and Left Realism have positive and negative aspects to their perspectives on the definition of crime. Overall, Left Realism is the perspective I agree with most out of the two. The importance of inner-city street crime is central to both Left and Right Realism for different reasons; however both standpoints make the mistake of neglecting the importance of the less visible white-collar crime. This essay will critically evaluate Left and Right Realism, comparing and evaluating the positive and negative aspects of both perspectives.
Positive perspective on Right Realism
Right Realism has been influential on government policy particularly in the USA and through the Thatcher years in the UK. Right Realists use New York City as an example of their ‘zero tolerance’ policy being successfully adopted, under Police Commissioner William Bratton and Mayor Giuliani in 1994 (Bowling, 1996). The city that had ‘stopped caring about itself’ reduced the crime rate by 37% over 3 years (Bowling, 1996) Homicide decreased by 51%, violence by 38%, car crime by 40% and robberies by 32% (Gibbons, 1996). Analysts of the ‘New York Miracle’ tended to agree there had been a significant reduction in crime due to the zero tolerance policing practices brought about by the restructuring of the police department (Bowling, 1996).
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James Q Wilson was against the popular view that increasing welfare provisions would result in crime reduction (Jones, 2001). He was right to question this notion as during the 1960’s these welfare expansions were implemented yet crime rates still rose (Jones, 2001). Hence it is understandable that during the economic downturn of the 1970’s Right Realism rose in popularity and right wing governments were appointed in the UK and US (Jones, 2001).The Left Idealist obsession with issues of the 1970’s allowed Right Realism to seize initiative in the political power debate as they offered a strong response while the left provided no strategy (Jones, 2001).
Wilson and Herrnstein focused on individual choice as well as the tolerance and dependence of individuals on the welfare system as an explanation to criminal behaviour (Jones, 2001). Wilson and Herrnstein strongly backed the idea that effective social conditioning can only take place in a nuclear family and therefore did not approve of single parents (Jones, 2001). Children from broken homes tend to be more likely to perform criminal acts in the future (Portes, 1998).
Negative perspective on Right Realism
Wilson was the former policy advisor of Republican President Reagan (Jones, 2001). Hence there are sincere issues on relying on official statistics of the time. Wilson ignores crimes of the powerful, which are financially more damaging than public order offenses. His obsession with highly visible criminal behaviour means he neglects white-collar crime, which could be down to his conservative background (Jones, 2001).
Wilson and Herrnstein’s approach to finding the key grounds underlying criminal behaviour is based on un-precise lexicon which makes it hard to subject their theory to empirical research (Gibbs, 1985). Right Realism fails to acknowledge nearly all socio-economic influences on the way individuals live and the high levels of inequality found in industrial societies (Jones, 2001). Concern of class, gender, power, and race are all neglected (Currie 1991). Wilson’s contentious attempt to rejuvenate Lombrosian views on ‘the criminal man’ is not justified with any new evidence while Lombrosian views on the ‘criminal man’ were originally built on non-credible evidence anyway (Jones, 2001). It’s extraordinary that Wilson overlooked the vast body of evidence that existed linking social factors to crime itself (Jones, 2001). Wilson and Herrnstein were also eclectic in the research they picked to cite in advocating their propositions (Kamin, 1985).
There is no clear researched evidence of a relationship between delinquency and urban decline (Matthews and Young, 1992). This significantly weakens the validity of Wilson and Kelling’s ‘Broken Windows’ study of New York (Jones, 2001). Instead, ignored factors such as underinvestment and poor facilities are more relevant to the deterioration of a neighbourhood (Matthews and Young, 1992). While the dramatic fall of crime rates in New York City did coincide with the implementation of zero tolerance policing, many have questioned whether they are linked as crime also fell significantly in 17 of the 25 largest cities in the US (Dixon 1999). These crime rate reductions tended to occur in cities using different policing methods to New York, which included Los Angeles, San Diego, Washington DC and Chicago (Bratton, 1997). In particular, the crime reduction trends between New York and Chicago are very similar, yet the methods used so very different. Since 1993 Chicago had been implementing a Left Realist community policing strategy that focused on improving public relations with the police (Bratton, 1997).
Wilson and Kelling’s reliance on informal control mechanisms is an issue, such as their belief that the police should be approved to go beyond the authoritarian limits of the criminal law to preserve order on the streets (Jones, 2001). This method makes the assessment of police efficiency rather arduous, as it would increase the scope for discriminatory police behaviour and would make police accountability problematic to say the least (Jones, 2001). These changes allow greater scope for police brutality, which decreases public cooperation with the police in crime ridden areas. This is seen in Philadelphia, where police complain that the biggest obstacle between them and bringing justice is the lack of cooperation they get from the public (Bratton, 1997). Heavy-handed policing can cause entire communities to feel under attack as the distinction between offenders and non-offenders becomes obscured (Lea and Young, 1984). The poor relationship between police and the community was the major issue in the Brixton riots in 1981 (Jones, 2001).
Wilson believed that US courts had become far too lenient in their punishments of crime, therefore he stated that repeat offenders should be sentenced to lengthy stretches of time in prison (Jones, 2001). This has in fact been implemented in the US as the ‘Three strikes and they’re out’ baseball metaphor (Jones, 2001). This hard-line strategy has failed as it has left the US with a greater rate of imprisonment than any other MEDC along with a high rate of crime (Currie, 1991). As the rate of imprisonment increased throughout the 1980’s, so did the crime rate (Jones, 2001).
Positive perspective on Left Realism
Left Realism’s key strength is its recognition of multiple causes of crime. Its focus on victims as well as offenders adds another dimension to the sociological understanding of crime. Left Realists believe a major cause of crime to be the feeling of ‘relative deprivation (Jones, 2001). While this feeling occurs most in the poor working classes, it cannot be acclaimed to be the outcome of poverty. For example there was more poverty in the 1930’s Great Depression yet a lower crime rate (Jones, 2001). Unlike Right Realism, the relative deprivation approach has the advantages of finding the causes of crime within social structures and provides an account that does not connect crime entirely to unemployment or poverty (Jones, 2001). An example of relative deprivation and subcultural theory combined can be is seen in Afro-Caribbean’s in the UK (Jones, 2001).
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Left Realism places heavy emphasis on ‘the fear of crime’ as a cripple on society (Jones, 2001). They are correct to flag this up as a problem as there is definite evidence that fear of crime exists, especially in Britain. The International Crime Victimisation Survey in 2000 shows that citizens of England and Wales top the list of 17 industrialised countries for the number of security devices installed, with London’s CCTV system being the largest in the world (Jones 2001).
Lea and Young state that justice should consistently take priority over crime control and that there should be an emphasis on improving public cooperation with police (Jones, 2001). This is a valid statement as police animosity with the public can be disadvantageous to social control (Jones, 2001). Cooperation as many will concur helps the police significantly in keeping order in the streets, making it correct for Left Realists to want focus on bringing people to justice, as in time this has the potential to build trust and cooperation between the public and the police.
The 2011 UK riots are an example of Left Realism theories on causes of crime coming to fruition. Marginalisation, alienation, relative deprivation and subcultural theory can all be attributed to the cause of these riots. Interviews with participants of the riots revealed this and they blamed the way police engaged with communities as their main justification of the disorder (James, 2011). Left Realism can use this as evidence in favour of community-friendly policing.
Negative perspective on Left Realism
For Left Realism, analysis of working class crime has always taken priority over white-collar crime (Jones, 2001). This allows those with the most power in society to influence the images conveyed of what are the most harmful crime problems (Jones, 2001). Left Realism fails to recognise how white-collar and corporate crime is damaging to society as their proposed policing methods do not deal with the issue (Pearce and Tombs, 1992). Furthermore their theories are based on small-scale victim surveys carried out in inner city areas (Mugford and O’Malley, 1991). Hence their theories are only applicable to inner-city areas and not representative of the entire nation (Mugford and O’Malley, 1991).
It is misguiding that Left Realism places so much emphasis on the rationality of the fear of crime (Sparks, 1992). It is incongruous to speculate fear in terms of rationality (Sparks 1992). The aptitude of survey respondents to make a factual estimation of risk is controlled by their fear of crime, which itself is exhibitive of a number of factors linked to their personality (Jones, 2001). Not many individuals are capable of making a valid assessment of the risk of crime in their community as information they obtain will often be exaggerated stories in the local news (Sparks, 1992). Feminists also claim fear of crime rationality is idle to women as local victim surveys that are founded on measuring incidents are unable to access the continuous underlying threat to security that exists in many women’s lives (Walklate, 2001).
Left Realisms argument for minimalist policing is criticised by Wilson who saw curbs on police power (Britain in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984) as a hindrance to keeping order in communities effectively (Jones, 2001). Left Realism seeks greater legal control of police powers, a limit on discretion and more public involvement in establishing policing priorities (Jones, 2001). Discretion limitation is extremely difficult as the majority of police interaction on the streets cannot be reached by the legal controls (Jones, 2001). Furthermore, radical converts to Left Realism may still hold a bias motive against the police after the 1980’s confrontations between left-wing local councils and chief constables over the government’s methods on policing (Jones, 2001).
Left Realism is the perspective I agree with most out of the two due to its key strength in recognising multiple causes of crime through its theories, its desire for more public and police cooperation and its focus on victims and what goes on behind the scenes. In contrast Right Realism cares only for a visible reaction against criminals on the streets, with tougher policing tactics and harsher prison sentences. Right Realisms negatives far outweigh its positives, with it lacking in both empathy and evidence to support its moral absolutism, making it a weaker perspective than Left Realism in comparison. While Right Realism provides more immediately effective tactics on street crime, it fails to solve the underlying causes of crime that Left Realism attempts to address. However, both Left and Right Realism have a significant issue that threatens their title as valid perspectives on crime in that they do not recognise white-collar crime as a problem. While positive points were made for both perspectives, throughout the essay it became increasingly apparent that both Left and Right realism have too many problems with their outlook and proposed methods that need to be addressed.
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