The Critical Theories of Criminology: Overview & Features

Instructor: Lauren Watkins

Lauren has a Master's degree in Criminology/criminal justice, is pursuing and MBA in Financial Crime and Fraud Management, and has conducted lectures.

This lesson explores critical theories of criminology (e.g., left realism, feminist theory, power-control theory). We'll also look at the justice system, crime, and delinquency, as they relate to each theory.

Critical Theories of Criminology

Mike and Rachel are high school students who have been dating for almost three years. They are supposed to go on a double date with another couple from school. When Mike arrives to pick up Rachel, he tells her she needs to change because he doesn't like her outfit. Rachel refuses to change, and Mike gets very angry and shoves Rachel for disrespecting him. Michael's assault of Rachel in this scenario is the focus of and can be explained using theories within critical criminology.

Critical criminology is a perspective that contains theories that challenge the stereotypical view of why people offend and forces us to examine social, political, and economic factors as the reasons why people offend. Some of the critical theories of criminology include the following:

  • Left Realism- Focus of research is on why street crime (e.g., assault, robbery) happens, why people become victims of street crimes, and how incidents of street crimes can be lessened

  • Feminist Theory- Explores why women have been ignored in criminological theories. Attempts to help people understand why women engage in crime and are victims of crime. Also, explores how the justice system treats women.

  • Power-Control Theory- Focuses on the parenting style used and how the way boys versus girls are taught to act helps to explain why boys offend more than girls.

We will focus on how these critical theories of criminology relate to juvenile delinquency; however, critical theories do help to explain crime at all ages. Juvenile delinquency is a term used to describe children who have committed a crime(s).

Left Realism

Left realism focuses on street crimes, like robbery and assault, and how we can reduce the amount of street crime that occurs. Left realism theorists argue that the focus has been on financial crimes and should instead be on victimization. According to left realist, street crime is due to the feeling of the offender being deprived in comparison to others.

For example, a lot of kids from Joe's school, including all the popular ones, have new Jordan sneakers, but Joe's family cannot afford them. Joe feels that he's being deprived of having these shoes. Because of this, he may try to find a way to get the shoes in an illegal way (e.g., stealing, selling drugs to get money).

According to left realist theory, the justice system responds to high levels of street crime by changing the response by police, which usually means police officers stop trying to build relationships with the community and develop strict policies that end up in high arrest rates. Left realists argue this does not work and the way to reduce crime in areas with high levels of street crime is to build trust and bonds with the community.

Feminist Theory

Early criminologists did not include why women offended into their theories because males were doing most of the offending. Consequently, feminist theory focuses on understanding why females offend, why males victimize females, and how the justice system treats female offenders. This is a major argument from feminist scholars who argue old criminological theories need to be redeveloped to include females, or new theories need to be developed that exclusively focus on female offending.

Feminist theorists argue that because the justice system fails to consider women on an individual level, sexual harassment is often mishandled. Could this be part of the reason why women often don't report being victims of sexual harassment?

When female juveniles offend, they are most likely to commit crimes like shoplifting or prostitution, which is quite different than males, who more often commit violent crimes. However, there has been a spike in juvenile girls being arrested, even in violent crimes like robbery. How are females treated differently once arrested? According to the research, females are more likely to be given probation or have their charges dropped, while males are more often given sentences where they spend some time in juvenile detention.

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