The Three Theories of Criminal Justice

Criminal justice theories, like all social science theories, provide useful tools that help explain human behavior and social phenomena. They offer important insights that shape practical applications and inform policy. Criminal justice encompasses several distinctive theoretical explanations for the causes and consequences of crime and criminal behavior, but three primary perspectives dominate the field.

Criminal justice encompasses several distinctive theoretical explanations for the causes and consequences of crime and criminal behavior, but three primary perspectives dominate the field.

The first, restorative justice theory, focuses on how to heal the harm caused by crime. It advocates for the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with the victims and the community affected by the crime.

In stark contrast to this approach, retributive justice theory emphasizes punishment rather than rehabilitation. It argues that the response to crime should be proportional to the offense, and the threat of punishment serves as the most effective deterrent to crime.

The last theory covered here, transformative justice, offers a structural approach that analyzes the social conditions in which crimes happen, the reasons for victimization, the need for restitution, and the establishment or restoration of peace and security.

Restorative Justice

Unlike classical criminal justice theories that focus primarily on punishment as a deterrent to crime, the restorative justice perspective seeks to repair the harm caused by crime. Restorative justice offers an approach that centers on community-based responses to crime by providing opportunities for redemption for offenders and encouraging reconciliation with victims. The theory encompasses both individual and social approaches, placing victims at the center of crime control and positioning community members as facilitators in this process.

Restorative justice theory rests on the fundamental principle that the people most directly harmed by crime should be the ones to participate in its resolution. Offenders must take responsibility for their criminal activity and the harm it has inflicted. Accountable to both the victims and the community, offenders must engage in a process with victims to determine how to make amends and provide restitution to the victims with the goal of reintegration of both offenders and victims within the community.

Over the last 40 years, restorative justice theory has informed criminal justice policies to reduce recidivism, address the needs of victims, and improve public safety within communities. The principles of the theory have been applied to prison rehabilitation programs and conflict resolution initiatives in schools and social service agencies. The application of restorative justice in criminal cases allows victims to testify at sentencing hearings about the impact of the crime on their lives and gives them a role in the decision-making process to hold offenders accountable.

Some common restorative justice applications include family interventions and mediation and peacemaking circles. Family intervention and mediation programs use skill-building methods to address acts of juvenile violence against family members. Peacemaking or "talking circles" rely on the practice of "deep listening" and dialogue between offenders and victims to develop trust and understanding. This process culminates in sentencing circles that include the participation of judges, probation officers, defense counsel, prosecutors, and community stakeholders.

Retributive Justice

Retributive justice theory argues that everyone who commits a criminal act deserves to suffer a punishment, administered by courts of law, and that the severity of this punishment should be in proportion to the harm caused by the crime committed. It is therefore morally wrong to punish innocent people for crimes they have not committed, and is unacceptable to inflict disproportionately large or severe punishments not warranted by the damage caused by the crime.

Retributive justice theory posits that deterrence provides the foundation for the criminal justice system and for maintaining law and order.

Contemporary versions of retributive justice theory emphasize rational choice and deterrence. These approaches argue that humans make rational choices to either abide by society's laws or to violate them. Individuals may decide to commit a crime because it brings them pleasure or satisfies their wants and needs. The theory argues that punishments must cause enough pain to outweigh the pleasure derived from committing the crime. The principle of deterrence rests on the assumption that, if punishment is certain, severe, and swift enough, individuals will weigh the costs and benefits and then choose to refrain from committing crimes, thereby maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain.

Retributive justice theory posits that deterrence provides the foundation for the criminal justice system and for maintaining law and order. The major focus of retribution rests on the nature of the crime itself and accountability for the offenders rather than the effect of the crime on the victims. Deterrence provides the justification for contemporary policies that impose maximum prison terms and mandatory sentences.

Programs such as Scared Straight that arrange encounters in correctional facilities between juvenile offenders and convicts serving life terms operate on the premise that scare tactics and threats will deter these young offenders from continuing criminal activity and avoid prison terms. Boot camps and shock incarceration programs also use fear, strict disciplinary techniques, and brief periods of incarceration to deter offenders from further criminal activity.

Transformative Justice

Transformative justice theory challenges the focus on punishment that underscores retributive justice and moves beyond the offender-victim dynamic advocated by restorative justice models. The theory incorporates a structural approach that examines the root causes of crime and inequality within social, political, and economic systems.

Transformative justice theory provides a critique of the criminal justice system as essentially unjust. The theory faults traditional approaches to crime for separating victims and offenders, revictimizing the victim, and transforming offenders into victims of the unjust criminal justice system.

This perspective argues that "crime" is defined and framed by the state through the criminal justice system. State control perpetuates injustices toward people of color, LGBTQ+ communities, women, people with disabilities, immigrants, the poor, and other marginalized and oppressed groups.

Rather than looking at offenders and victims as distinct entities, transformative justice recognizes that an individual may have caused harm and suffer from harm. Transformative approaches strive to improve the quality of life for victims, offenders, and the community by addressing the social and economic inequalities that cause crime.

This theory advocates for deinstitutionalizing criminal justice by empowering people and communities rather than institutions to make their own decisions about violence, accountability, and healing. Proponents of transformative justice approaches oppose all forms of violence, including state-sanctioned and individual actions, punishment, institutionalization, and imprisonment. Transformative justice activists advocate for the end to all state policies that allow retributive and punitive practices, including the death penalty, torture, and the abolition of prisons. Instead, they propose community and government programs based on accountability, forgiveness, healing, and inclusive education.

Transformative justice approaches have begun to influence social policies beyond criminal justice. Activists working to address inequities in areas such as environmental safety, corporate responsibility, consumer economics and debt, labor-management relations, and family law apply methods based on mediation, negotiation, and community circles to resolve conflicts and build responsibility, trust, and inclusion.

Put Theory Into Practice by Exploring Bachelor's in Criminal Justice Programs

An online criminal justice degree gives you the tools to put theoretical principles into practice in an array of career paths. Before choosing a program, you should explore what to expect from an online bachelor's program in criminal justice, the costs and availability of scholarships, and employment and salary prospects for the most popular occupations.

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Explore Impactful Careers in Criminal Justice

The best online criminal justice degree programs explore different perspectives while offering coursework that helps you achieve your particular career goals. These subareas include career-focused study in fields such as law enforcement, corrections, crime scene investigation, cybersecurity, and public safety administration. This guide provides a general overview of employment possibilities, state-specific entry requirements for criminal justice careers, and scholarship information for each state.