Book review: The Politics of Injustice

Mathieu Deflem

This is a copy of a book review published in Contemporary Justice Review 6(2):205-206, 2003.
Also available as pdf file.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2003. Review of The Politics of Injustice: Crime and Punishment in America, by Katherine Becket and Theodore Sasson. Contemporary Justice Review 6(2):205-206, 2003.

In this criminal justice textbook, the authors provide an analysis of recent trends in the U.S. criminal justice system, specifically concerning the role of crime and criminal justice in political and cultural life. I must be frank in my evaluation and immediately inform readers that I do not like this book and that I do not think it can be useful in our teaching. However, reflecting the heated nature of controversies on so many issues involved with our system of criminal justice, opinions about this book, likewise, will differ enormously. This book is rather unique in its approach, so I do recommend that readers consult the work themselves to see whether or not they agree with my assessment. My guess, unfortunately, is that political sentiments, not standards of scholarship, will largely determine opinions about the values and limitations of this work. That, however, is not the perspective upon which I base this review and my judgment.

The goal of Becket and Sasson in writing this textbook is to rethink the basis of the harshening of the U.S. criminal justice system over the past three decades. The authors argue that the emergence and spread of the ‘get-tough’ approaches to crime are not directly related to any developments in crime --as the media and our politicians want us to believe-- but correspond to political and cultural representations of crime that distort the real issues. The authors analyze this trend in a number of areas in criminal justice, especially from a historical perspective and in matters of the representation of crime in popular culture. Among the topics explored in this book are the rise of the war on drugs, representations of crime in the news media and in the world of television and entertainment, and related matters of public opinion and policy. Not only do the authors provide selected research data on these issues, they also offer a strong opinion about what is going on and what should be done about it, basically criticizing existing official policies and hoping for their delegitimation. Though some non-official criminal justice policies are also discussed, this book offers no clear alternative.

I do not like this book for a number of reasons. The theoretical set-up is really astonishing, specifically when the authors suggest to cut across objectivist and constructionist perspectives and proceed to discuss these important issues in a way that completely misses the point. In particular, the authors misunderstand and misrepresent the issues of objectivism and constructionism in terms of differences in themes of research as focusing either on crime or its representation, whereas this important epistemological problem pertains to different conceptions of how crime as well as its representation (as any other social theme) can and should be approached in research. Trying to move beyond the objectivist-constructionist divide, Becket and Sasson plunge right in the middle. I have rarely encountered such naive essentialism and expect better from qualified scholars.

However, the main reasons for my discontent with this work concern the biased nature and one-sided objectives of this book. The title of this book immediately betrays the authors’ intentions. What our society --especially its media and political leaders-- refer to as justice, Becket and Sasson condemn as injustice. The manner in which they address this not undefendable argument is not through analyzing the role of crime in U.S. politics and culture in a scholarly work of research. That would have been perfectly acceptable. But instead this is a textbook with instructional goals that defends only the authors’ opinions --in a manner, moreover, that is at times blatantly patronizing. The authors blame politicians and the media for most that is wrong about criminal justice --or must I write criminal injustice?-- while they view the public as misinformed and ignorant, at best, or as playing an active part in the conspiracy, at worst. The basic problem is not that this book lacks a standard of critique --which it does-- but that it incorporates the objectives of a research agenda in a textbook oriented at instruction. Yet, while as researchers we are obliged to develop, defend, and substantiate an opinion, as instructors we should show responsibility to inform students of the wide plurality of opinions among scholars. To do otherwise is disrespectful, especially to our students.

The ultimate objective of this book, I assume, is trying to convince us that criminal justice can be bettered if only citizens would stop listening to their politicians, stop buying into media depictions, and instead start relying on the experts of criminal justice. But it won’t work; not unless more powerful strategies are pursued with a more respectful approach to everybody concerned and with more convincing arguments. Our colleges and universities are a good place to start, but not by preaching. Also, the big problem about available textbooks in criminal justice, as I see it, is not that they are supportive of existing conditions --although implicitly they often are-- but that they tend to be profoundly unsociological or otherwise not rooted in social science and only offer internal accounts of administration and management. Becket and Sasson’s book, meanwhile, cannot but be an ill-fated attempt to coach students into accepting the authors’ own ideas. But it just won’t work.

See other writings on social control and criminal justice.