Volume 2, Issue 2, June 2000

ISSN 1096-4886 http://www.westerncriminology.org/Western_Criminology_Review.htm
© 2000, The Western Criminology Review. All Rights Reserved.

Elliott Currie Responds to Richard Hil's Commentary

(Elliott Currie's original article is "Reflections on Crime and Criminology at the Millenium")

I appreciate Richard Hil's remarks, and I don't think there is really much disagreement between us. But I do have a couple of comments.

1. Richard accuses both me and the field of criminology in general of ignoring corporate and state crime, and of identifying crime with street violence. But I don't think that's an accurate characterization, either of what I think or, more importantly, of what really goes on in the discipline as a whole. I teach about white collar crime in my courses on crime and criminal justice year in, year out, and couldn't imagine doing otherwise. The fact that this definitional issue doesn't appear in everything I say or write about crime hardly means that I think "crime" equals violent street offenses by poor folks. The piece that Richard is responding to was an attempt to jump into the middle of some current debates about street crime, so that's what it talks about. Frankly, I think it would be distracting to do otherwise. Indeed I think some progressive criminologists back in the 1970s made a strategic mistake on this score: confronted with a growing public concern about street violence, and an ominous rightward march of public policy toward that kind of crime, some of us too often responded by saying that corporate crime was a much bigger problem. That may have been true, but it was also a non sequitor, and it ducked the issue that was actually on the table: and as a result it helped position us on the fringes of the debate about street crime itself.

Again, of course, that's not to say we shouldn't talk centrally about corporate and state crime as well. But who really disagrees with that today? There was a time when it was mostly folks on the leftward side of the discipline who wanted to bring crimes by the powerful into the picture. I don't think that's true any more. The need to do that is accepted by most "mainstream" criminologists I know, and good work on white collar crime is indeed being done as we speak by criminologists at many points on the political spectrum. Frankly, I think we should worry less about the definitional issue at this stage, and concentrate more on doing that good work and seeing it pushed onto the social and political agenda.

2. Which raises my second point. Richard suggests that I, and some others, tend to "homogenize" criminology, don't understand the depth of the rifts within the discipline, and believe that we could accomplish much more in the public arena if we "only tried harder." Well, that's partly right. I certainly don't deny that there are deep and consequential divisions within the discipline--they've caused ME plenty of grief, after all. But that surely doesn't mean that those of us with a strong point of view shouldn't try to push the discipline, and its various institutions, to do a better job of shaping public policy in ways that we think are the right ones. I DO believe we could make more of a difference if we tried harder. And I think that matters.

Let me give you a local example. In the mid-1990 we passed, in California, the notorious "three strikes and you're out" law, which has since helped to jam our prisons, mostly with people of color, to the detriment of every other more productive public purpose. I doubt that there can be more than five professional criminologists in the state of California who ever imagined that three strikes was a good idea. But where was the organized criminological opposition to the measure? In my view, every professional organization, state and national, should have been loudly and visibly making their skepticism and alarm an inescapable feature of the public debate. But that didn't really happen. Most of the organized opposition came from brave but underfunded and overmatched nonprofit advocacy groups, which, as I said in the WCR piece, have borne a disproportionate share of this sort of work. Could we have stopped three strikes? I don't know, but we certainly could have put up a much better fight, and educated a lot of people about the issues more generally in the process. And you could say this about the criminological response to recent public policy issues in practically every state in the Union.

3. So I do think we could do better if we tried harder, and I hope we do. I agree completely with Richard that we need to (a) become more serious and sophisticated in our proposals for action and (b) make stronger links with other organizations and social movements. The latter point is especially important. We can do better, but we won't accomplish enough if we try to do it alone. If there is one thing that many of us have tried to drive home in our own work for years, it is that you can't detach the problem of crime from others--inequality, social exclusion and deprivation, the absence of social provision, continued racial subordination--and much more. Just as we can't deal with (street) crime without confronting those issues, neither can we confront malevolent or misguided social policies without joining forces with others working on issues that are deeply enmeshed with ours. Linking ourselves organizationally with people working in health and mental health care, education, labor issues, and more should be one of our very highest priorities in the years to come. I'd welcome more discussion about how best to do that in this Review.

Meanwhile, thanks again to Richard Hil for his comments, and I hope this dialogue continues.

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Elliott Currie

Elliott Currie is the author, most recently, of Crime and Punishment in America (Metropolitan Books, 1998), which was a finalist for the 1999 Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction. His earlier writings include Confronting Crime (1985) and Reckoning: Drugs, the Cities, and the American Future (1993). He currently teaches in the Legal Studies Program at the University of California, Berkeley.

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