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What is Right Realism in Criminology?

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Instructor: Joe Ricker

Joe has a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing and a Bachelor of Arts degree in English.

Essentially, right realism points a finger of accusation for the cause of crime, but the theories are in need of explanation. Right realism has met some significant opposition, especially in progressing political climates. Updated: 06/23/2022

What Is Right Realism?

In the United States in the '70s and '80s, crime rates were rising. Conservatives had a responsibility to curb crime and its impact on victims, which brought about the ''tough on crime'' era that was heavily enforced through the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations, with the effects continuing on through the Bush Jr., Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations into the 21st century.

The primary perspective of right realism theory is that crime is a problem that affects the poor, meaning that poor people are essentially the reason for crime. Right realists and conservatives believe that tough control and punishments are the only way to stop criminal trends.

Many of the harshest criminal punishments for even non-violent criminals emerged from this era. Reagan's ''war on drugs'' and mandatory minimum sentences, along with President Bill Clinton's 1994 Crime Act were just a couple of practices put into place in an effort to solve the crime epidemic. Right realists established that there were three major causes for crime:

  1. Poor socialization and development
  2. Personality differences or biological factors
  3. Weak punishments for criminals, which created a criminal mindset

Ronald Reagan pushed legislation to be tougher on crime based on the right realist theories proposed by political scientists. The trends continued and include President Bill Clinton's and future President Joe Biden's, as it happens, 1994 Crime Bill, also known as the three-strikes law, which incarcerated people for life upon conviction of a third violent crime or serious felony.

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  • 0:04 What Is Right Realism?
  • 1:46 The Criminal Personality
  • 3:01 The Underclass
  • 4:07 Right Realist Criticisms
  • 5:15 Lesson Summary
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The Criminal Personality

Right realism holds that the tendency toward criminal behavior is based on personality and biology. Political scientists who first proposed right realism adopted the theory that a person of low intelligence, low impulse control, as well as people who were risk-takers or showed aggressive behaviors were part of a subculture that was more inclined to adopt a criminal lifestyle. That is the essence of the criminal personality. Right realists believe these people were innately predisposed to commit crime.

One of the reasons right realists focus on the poor is their belief that welfare dependency produces a subculture of criminals. People make a conscious choice to commit crimes because they would rather be criminals and live on the benefits of welfare than seek employment.

Single-parent households, they suspect, especially those without a male role model or father figure, are most likely to produce criminals. In addition to a lack of moral values that right realists claim poor families share, it's asserted that poor families also resist mainstream social values, which actually encourages criminal behavior. This, the right realists conclude, is the reason for increasing criminal trends.

The Underclass

As a way to classify people who could be generally categorized as criminals and to target these people for enforcement, right realists created a subculture called the underclass. The underclass theory was proposed by Charles Murray, a political scientist, who defined people of the underclass as people who embraced criminal values and deviant behavior over social values.

Murray also concluded that people of the underclass were likely to pass on these characteristics to the next generation. Murray credited the rise of this class to welfare dependency.

Another argument promoted by right realists for stricter laws and harsher punishments is the assertion that criminals make a rational choice to commit crimes. Essentially, criminals calculate the consequences of the crime versus the reward of the crime.

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