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Marxism is Alive and Well in our Prison System

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By Dr. Vincent Giordano, Program Director, Criminal Justice at American Public University

One theory of criminology that receives little attention in today’s criminal justice field is the theory of Marxist criminology. The general view today seems to be that after the collapse of communism in Russia and Eastern Europe, Marxist criminology has little value in our current criminal justice field.

However, I contend that this is far from accurate!

Marxism is an interesting theory when applied to criminological thought. Marxism plays off of society’s inherent classism, in which the group with the wealth and power seeks to maintain its current position in society. Based upon the social philosophy of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Marxism (as it became known to the world) looked at the development and function of society from an economic foundation (Vago, 2009).

prisoner handAt its core, Marx separates society into the “haves” (bourgeoisie) and the “have-nots” (proletariat). The bourgeoisie controlled the wealth and the means of production (capitalism), while the proletariat does not own wealth or the means of obtaining it (Vago, 2009).

Under this system, Marxist criminologists argue that the laws and legal system are designed to maintain capitalism by keeping the proletariat in a state of poverty and powerlessness through the enforcement of the laws created by those in power (Vago, 2009).

When one objectively looks at America’s system of laws, it is difficult to disagree with the core ideas of Marxist criminology and how it applies to society.

America’s Prison System
In American society, one can certainly find numerous examples of power structure keeping the poor in a perpetual state of poverty. Evidence points toward the undeniable fact that the majority of individuals serving time in America’s prison system comprise those who do not hold any power in our society.

Tonry (1995) best presented this fact when he said:

“Poor minority communities cannot prosper when so many of their young men are prevented from settling into long-term personal relationships, getting or keeping job, and living conventional lives” (para.1).

This statement gets to the heart of what Marxist criminologists are trying to convey, which is that America’s system of laws are designed to prey upon the poor in order to keep them poor by setting up obstacles for obtaining wealth. Only through this system can the bourgeoisie maintain their power and influence through the capitalist system.

It may be argued that Marxist criminology fails to address issues of race and gender adequately (Vago, 2009). Certainty, no criminological theory adequately covers every aspect of society. However, from a purely economic stand point, Marxist criminology does more than an adequate job of pointing out the flaws of the American economic system and how it pertains to the legal system. Because of this, Marxist criminology should play a more prominent role in the study of criminology.

Vincent GiordanoAbout the Author: Dr. Vinnie Giordano Ph.D, CAP, CCJAP obtained his bachelor’s in liberal arts from Long Island University/C.W. Post with a specialization in political science. He then went on to achieve his MS in criminal justice from Florida Metropolitan University, and another MS in criminal justice from the University of Cincinnati. Dr. Giordano obtained his Ph.D. in human services with a specialization in criminal justice from Capella University. Before coming to APUS as a full-time employee, Dr. Giordano worked in the field of substance abuse and behavioral health for 13 years as a substance abuse counselor in a Department of Corrections-funded youth offender program. There he maintained positions in counseling and supervising for a 28-day residential and aftercare program, and as the Administrator of Juvenile Services at the Pinellas Juvenile Assessment Center.

References

Tonry, M. (1995). Malign neglect: Race, crime, and punishment in America. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Vago, S. (2009). Law & society (9th ed). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

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