Radical v. Liberal Criminology: An Afterthought

One of the most interesting moments at this year’s American Society of Criminology meetings in San Francisco was the “reunion” of Tony Platt and Jerry Skolnick during a session on the republishing, with a new forward and preface, of the book The Politics of Protest: Task Force on Violent Aspects of Protest and Confrontation of the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, which was originally published in September 1969. Skolnick, Professor Emeritus at UC Berkeley (and now co-director of the Center for Crime and Justice at NYU Law) was on the Berkeley Criminology School faculty, and already famous for his book, Justice Without Trial (1966, 1994) when he was appointed director of the task force on protest of President Johnson’s violence commission. Skolnick hired one of his junior colleagues, Anthony Platt, and a graduate student, Elliott Currie to be his main research assistants and to help with the writing and editing of the report/book; both have become major criminologists as well. Anthony Platt, then an Assistant Professor Criminology at Berkeley, had already written the first edition of The Child Savers, a renowned study of the class origins and purposes of juvenile justice in the early 20th century, that has also recently been republished. Platt was denied tenure, in large part because of his protest activities, and left Berkeley after the Criminology School was eliminated in 1976 to be a Professor of Social Work at California State University, Sacramento until his retirement a few years ago, where he published many other books as well as editing the journal Crime and Social Justice for many years. Elliott Currie, Professor at UC Irvine’s Criminology, Law & Society department, is the author of the classic, Confronting Crime: An American Challenge, as well as many other books.

Given a chance to hear three such renowned criminologists reflect on an ultimately doomed effort to steer America’s response to violence toward completing the institutional reforms begun by the Civil Rights movement and the War on Poverty, it was not surprising that the room was packed. It was perhaps inevitable that most of the attention was on the death of the Berkeley Criminology School. Platt bluntly blamed Skolnick and other liberals on the faculty, for “selling out” the School and its junior faculty, much of which, especially Platt, were openly engaged in the protest politics of Berkeley in those years. Skolnick suggested that the closure (and Platt’s denial of tenure) were decisions taken at the top of the University which neither he, nor other faculty, could do anything to stop. Currie, who has remained very friendly with the other two, kept himself to chairing the session.

I’ll leave to another time a discussion of the actual history. What disappointed me about the session (which was mainly focused on what John Dombrink aptly analogized to the hurt feelings of children to a divorce) was the missed opportunity, buried in Platt’s opening remarks, to reflect on how both liberal and radical criminology were “failures” that had failed to stop the coming of mass incarceration and all the other destructive features of what David Garland has called our Culture of Control. I would love to have heard each of these thinkers on why despite the considerable intellectual and even political resources, progressives could not effectively prevent the policy discussion of violence in America from becoming dominated by thinkers like James Q. Wilson, and his reduction of the problem of violence to crime prevention in his epic and influential Thinking About Crime (1975).

By the time The Politics of Protest was published, Richard Nixon had already been elected on a “Law and Order” platform, and a growing coalition of law enforcement groups and politicians were beginning to coalesce around a politics of capital punishment and mass incarceration in state politics around the country. Still, it would take a decade for the logics of governing through crime to become hegemonic in America, and much of the progressive critique of criminal justice as racist and arbitrary remained salient to many Americans. Overall I suspect that nothing merely criminological could have stopped this trend. Even if Skolnick and Platt had stayed on the same side, and continued to work together along with Currie, perhaps no book from the left could have prevailed over Wilson at the time given the social and political roots of governing through crime.

I’ve always viewed this history and its conflicts with fascination. I was too young to protest in the 1960s (although my parents introduced me to the civil rights and anti-war movements through their participation). I made my way to Berkeley for college in large part drawn by the legacy of protest there, arriving the year after the Criminology School closed. Drawn by the coming catastrophe of mass incarceration, I did graduate work at the Jurisprudence and Social Policy program at Berkeley, (the program that took some extent replaced the Criminology School) where I studied with Skolnick, as well as Shelly Messinger and Caleb Foote (to other prime “liberals” from the Criminology School). Given my own propensity to protest, which earned me three visits to Santa Rita County jail while a student, I’ve always sympathized with the plight of the untenured radical faculty. The fact that Platt was denied tenure despite proven excellence as a teacher and scholar, and only because of his political participation, is a permanent stain on Berkeley’s academic record.

From my perspective now, however, after the war on crime, liberal criminology has remained a more robust and enduring position while radical criminology, especially the highly ideological sort advocated by the Berkeley Criminology school radicals, has, for the most part, proven to be a rhetorical disaster (and would have been a policy disaster had it been implemented). Celebrating convict revolutionaries and denouncing the criminal justice system as it then existed in states like California at the time (far smaller and much more benign than today) as a hopelessly racist and fascist apparatus aimed at preventing popular revolution, had no chance of appealing to ordinary Americans witnessing a genuine wave of both state and private violence, let alone convincing them to support necessary anti-racist reforms. More importantly, it left progressive criminologists with few tools and little credibility to respond to the massive growth of incarceration and the hyper policing of minority urban neighborhoods that would follow in the decades of the 1980s and 1990s. Berkeley’s racial criminology, in short, turned out to be the “boy who cried wolf.”

In contrast, the best of liberal criminology, including Justice Without Trial, recognized the potential of “law” in “law enforcement” to resist the excesses of populist punitiveness and ultimately to rebuild support for insisting that law enforcement serve a “democratic” society and not the other way around. It is telling, in this regard, that when Elliott Currie wrote the first really effective response to the Wilsonite orthodoxy in his 1988, Confronting Crime, he began to rehabilitate the policy premises of liberal criminology while abandoning most of the rhetoric of radicalism.

Today as the war on crime grinds on despite little public rationale for its existence (and mostly inertia to change keeping it in place), it is imperative that we focus on how to reconstruct American society and politics after the tremendous destruction of mass incarceration and governing through crime. That is a struggle which I believe the ideological warfare of 1968-1976 has practically no relevance for, and in which liberals, radicals, and conservatives can find common ground.

Posted by Jonathan Simon, Nov. 22, 2010

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