Don’t Fear Theory: The Role of Criminal Justice Theory on Your Department’s Policies
By Dr. Vincent Giordano Program Director, Criminal Justice at American Public University
Whenever I mention the word “theory” to students I am met with a combination of emotions, including dread, confusion and the occasional fear in regards to math! Often these mixed emotions are due to a lack of understanding of what theory is and how it impacts the study of criminal justice.
What Do We Mean By Theory?
Williams and McShane (2014) state that criminological theory provides an opportunity to critique the way others have looked at crime. They further state that theory “is not just a popular belief, opinion, or value-driven explanation” (Williams & McShane, 2014 p.1). Theory, they contend, “is a product of the scientific approach” (Williams & McShane, 2014 p1).
Everyone must understand that theory is based on science and not on opinions or value-driven ideas. Often this is the greatest struggle I have with students: Getting them to understand that criminal justice theory is not based on the laymen’s understanding of the theory concept, which to them means “I have a guess,” or a value-driven idea based upon a political, religious or personal view of a topic. In these cases I always challenge the student to seek out the science and avoid letting their personal opinions and views get in the way.
Practical Application of Theory in Everyday Police Work
What many of us need to understand is that theory drives criminal justice practice. Williams and McShane (2014) correctly point out that police departments design procedures and policies around criminological theory. The same goes for judges when it comes to sentencing individuals to rehabilitative programs, or corrections professionals when it comes to the application of programs. The bottom line is that theory drives our profession, so we must become intimately aware of its existence in the field.
Case in point, in a course I teach, CMRJ206 Juvenile Delinquency, one of the assignments focuses on the effectiveness of juvenile boot camps. Before discussing this topic, however, one must understand the theoretical drive behind the practice. Many students often cite their military experience as a justification for why boot camps are a good idea. However, remember that theory is not value-driven! It’s driven by science.
Boot camps are based on deterrence/rational choice theories, based on the works of Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham. Central to their work was the idea that humans were rational creatures who exercise free will. Furthermore, they contended that the application of punishment should be rational and work toward deterring both the offender and those within society from committing, or contemplating, crime, respectively. Boot camps are designed around this purpose. They are designed to instill discipline, and deter future criminal behavior by being tough on the offender. However, do they work?
The idea often expressed is that “boot camp worked for me, so it should work for these kids!” Unfortunately, statistics prove otherwise. For example the National Institute of Justice (n.d.) found that “there is no general reduction in recidivism attributable to juvenile boot camps.” However despite this evidence, and that of many other studies showing boot camps are not effective, students still state “I believe boot camps work!” I liken this disconnect to our general misunderstanding of science and in some cases our mistrust of science, which is tied to our general misunderstanding of science. We see this happening in lots of non-criminal justice related topics like climate science or evolution. Often our misunderstanding is driven by our personal views and our lack of scientific literacy which is unfortunate.
So what do we need to take away from this discussion?
First, criminal justice is a practice that is driven by science and theory. Often people refer to some sciences as hard sciences (chemistry, biology, and physics), and soft sciences (criminology and sociology). This is an incorrect and unnecessary labeling of these fields of study. That is because all of these fields are driven through the application of theory which has been built via the scientific method. Theory is built over a period of time through the application of multiple research projects.
Theory is not a guess or a gut feeling. If anything, that is a hypothesis, and not a theory. Furthermore, theory drives everything we do in criminal justice. Programs are not created or implemented simply because they feel or sound good; they are all theory-driven. Finally, we all need to work on improving our scientific literacy.
It is our responsibility as criminal justice professionals to not throw out scientific findings if they do not meet our preconceived understanding of the world. Instead, try to understand the findings and how they impact your understanding of the subject. Explore the literature and see where some of these programs can be improved. However do not ignore the science. It’s not going to just go away.
About the Author: Dr. Vinnie Giordano Ph.D. obtained a Bachelors of Arts degree from Long Island University/ C.W. Post in Liberal Arts with a specialization in political science, his Masters of Science degree from Florida Metropolitan University in Criminal Justice, and another Masters of Science in Criminal Justice from the University of Cincinnati. Dr. Giordano also 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 had worked in the field of substance abuse/ behavioral health for 13 years where he worked as a substance abuse counselor in a Department of Corrections funded youthful offender program, a counselor and supervisor for a 28-day residential and aftercare program, and as the Administrator of Juvenile Services at the Pinellas Juvenile Assessment Center. Currently, Dr. Giordano serves as the Program Director of the Criminal Justice Department which is under the School of Public Service and Health.
National Institute of Justice (n.d.). Juvenile boot camps. Retrieved from: http://www.crimesolutions.gov/PracticeDetails.aspx?ID=6
Williams, F.P. & McShane,M.D. (2014), Criminological theory (6th ed). Boston, MA; Pearson