Criminology can illuminate many theoretical inquiries in (among others) sociology, law, psychology, politics, economics, philosophy and anthropology. It has been described as a rendezvous discipline – a subject where lots of others subjects come together – or, less politely, a raider discipline that grabs what it can from other disciplines (or even a ‘magpie’ subject, though magpies are contesting this particular slander.
All criminal justice policies assert (or more usually simply assume) some criminological claims. Any strategy to reduce crime, for example, must claim an understanding of the causes (or reasons) why people offend.
Applied criminology (criminology, that is, that is applied to political concerns) can concern itself with three principal questions (not in order of importance):
i. what is to be done about offenders?
ii. what is to be done about crime?
iii. what is to be done on behalf of the victims of crime?
These apparently simple questions are conceptually much more complex than first appears and any answers to them involve political judgements as well as debates about effectiveness.
The first insight, however, is simply to recognise that there are three questions here and not just one. At times in UK (and in USA) these questions have become entangled and brought confusions that have frustrated a good answer to any of them. In particular, it has sometimes been supposed that the answer to all three is (more) punishment.
i. Offenders deserve to be punished.
ii. More punishment will reduce crime – by deterrence (frightening off potential offenders) or incapacitation (locking up criminals).
iii. And (only) punishment can vindicate the experience of victims and do them justice.
At various places on this Blog, I shall put forward reasons why I think all three of these claims need to be assessed carefully if they are to be understood properly and not mislead us in developing policy or in forming our own opinions. Whatever is thought about this, the main thing to see here is that that there are three questions – with potentially at least three kinds of answer – and not just one.