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September 5, 2017

Lamenting a "liberal tilt in criminology"

John Paul Wright and Matt DeLisi have this provocative essay in the Summer 2017 issue of City Journal under the full headline "What Criminologists Don’t Say, and Why: Monopolized by the Left, academic research on crime gets almost everything wrong." Here are a few excerpts from what merits a full read by all criminal justice academics (and others):

Evidence of the liberal tilt in criminology is widespread.  Surveys show a 30:1 ratio of liberals to conservatives within the field, a spread comparable with that in other social sciences.  The largest group of criminologists self-identify as radical or “critical.”  These designations include many leftist intellectual orientations, from radical feminism to Marxism to postmodernism.  Themes of injustice, oppression, disparity, marginalization, economic and social justice, racial discrimination, and state-sanctioned violence dominate criminological teaching and scholarship, as represented in books with titles like Search and Destroy: African American Males in the Criminal Justice System, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, and Imprisoning Communities: How Mass Incarceration Makes Disadvantaged Neighborhoods Worse....

Walter Miller, one of the few mid-twentieth-century criminologists whose work was unapologetically conservative, suggested that ideology can turn “plausibility into ironclad certainty . . . conditional belief into ardent conviction . . . and reasoned advocate into the implacable zealot.”  When shared beliefs take hold, as they often do in the academic bubble in which most criminologists live, ideological assumptions about crime and criminals can “take the form of the sacred and inviolable dogma of the one true faith, the questioning of which is heresy, and the opposing of which is profoundly evil.”

Miller’s observations have proved prophetic.  Led by the work of Jonathan Haidt, a growing number of scholars now acknowledge that a lack of ideological diversity in the social sciences skews research in favor of leftist claims, which become the guiding principles of many fields, challenged only at the risk of harming one’s career.  Liberal assumptions go unchecked and tendentious claims of evidence become fact, while countervailing evidence doesn’t get published or faces much more rigorous scrutiny than the assertions that it challenges.

Liberal political values can shape and distort the research that criminologists do and the public positions that they take. Lee Ellis and Anthony Walsh surveyed several hundred criminologists and found that self-reported ideological perspective was strongly associated with the type of theory that the scholar most often advocated, with liberal criminologists primarily supporting theories that locate the causes of crime in social and economic deprivation.  Coauthor John Wright has recently collected data showing that political ideology predicts almost perfectly the policy positions of criminologists.  On issues ranging from gun control to capital punishment to three-strikes laws, liberal criminologists showed almost no variation in their beliefs. (Needless to say, they dislike guns, oppose punitive sentences, and vehemently object to the death penalty.)


Because I am a law professor and not a criminologist, I cannot speak directly to biases and their impactsin the ranks of criminologists.  But I think it notable that the authors note that other social sciences — and here I would assume law is included — also attract so many more liberals relative to conservatives.  I fear that, in any and every academic setting, this dramatic kind of political imbalance can and will always risk badly distorting the research, teaching and service of an academic department.

September 5, 2017 at 10:50 AM | Permalink


Hallelujah. Balance.

Very good, Prof. Berman.

No explanation of the bias. Rent seeking. Not benign bias that humanity is mostly good.

Posted by: David Behar | Sep 5, 2017 1:46:15 PM

Prof. Berman has said, I too often go after people and sources, rather than points. Well, if you visit the David Duke web site, do you think, it is productive to rebut his many attacks on Jews and blacks using facts and logic? There is no point. Deniers do not argue in good faith. David Duke is emotional about those groups, and will never be swayed, even if a Jew or black were to save with his life with an organ donation, never mind cold intellectual facts.

Now combine the same emotionality of a biased denier and hate monger, add making a living from government make work jobs. It will be easier to make David Duke love the Jews than to make left wing, big government, liberals support the crime victim, and not the criminal.

I make no distinction between academic journals and the David Duke web site, save that David Duke is less biased. His views are not distorted by the threat to their making a living, if we were to lower crime. Mandatory sentencing guidelines. 5 years later, crime is down 40% across the board, because there is no specialization among criminals. The consequence? Lawyer unemployment is massive. Even Justice "Hang 'Em High" Scalia gets the message, leads the intellectual charge against mandatory sentencing guidelines.

This is a covered up scandal of legal academia. There is no disclosure of bias, nor of financial dependency, direct and indirect. It represents a scheme of massive fraud.

Posted by: David Behar | Sep 5, 2017 2:00:59 PM

Goodness. I guess it depends on who you ask. This is positively nuts because I find criminology scholarship to be one of the most racially insensitive and protective of the status quo of all disciplines. If there is a liberal bias, it is only to the extent that educated people tend not to be completely insane and socially liberal. If anything, there is a moderate bias in criminology, or status quo bias (which is often protective of conservative ideals) in criminology.

Ask progressive or radical criminologists if there is a liberal bent in criminology. There's a reason why there is a whole branch of criminology called Critical Criminology, which would argue that Criminology does not represent progressive values.

Posted by: Annie | Sep 5, 2017 2:37:07 PM

I am a retired federal probation officer (December 2016), now working as a sentencing mitigation specialist for defense attorneys. I have read your blog for years, and as a Guideline Sentencing Specialist for 22 years, found your insights invaluable. It is interesting that most of the front-line practitioners in the criminal justice system (cops, probation officers, correctional officers) are more conservative, while the reviewers (judges, attorneys, academics) tend to be more liberal. I don't have any amazing insights into why that may be, but I appreciate your willingness to suggest that having a one-sided view might actually lead to inaccurate conclusions. Such honesty is rare in the field.

Posted by: John D Olive | Sep 5, 2017 2:50:45 PM

Great comments, Anne and John, and I hope to hear more along these lines from all quarters. I am especially drawn to John's insights about the leanings of certain groups of actors in the CJ system. In this and other settings, I have long thought there is both selection bias in who goes into certain fields AND what they encounter in those fields.

The "front-line practitioners" you mention, John, are often drawn to their jobs by concerns about public safety, and they distinctly see/feel/remember the worst harms that the worst offenders do to the most innocent victims. The "reviewers" you mention are often drawn to their jobs by concerns about individual rights, and they distinctly see/feel/remember the worst examples of the not-so-bad offenders being chewed up by "the system."

Posted by: Doug B. | Sep 5, 2017 3:06:12 PM

Front line practitioners are often the victims and fear the criminals, spending the most time in their vicinity. If blacks are 5 times more likely to be the victims of criminals, I am going to bet the police and prison guards are 10 times more likely to be the victims of criminals. Their fear of injury, everyday, trumps their rent seeking tendencies.

When a crime victim hurts a criminal, these front line practitioners will crush the self defending victim, because public self help is the sole effective way to stop crime.

I consider them agents of the worthless prosecution. If crime is eliminated, they lose their jobs. They herd crime into poor neighborhoods. They maintain a very high level of crime. When it drops, they bring it back up. That entire crew is worthless. They allow 30 million crimes a year, and prosecute 2 million. When they have a guy, much of the time, they have the wrong guy. Worse, they implant false memories of details of the crime, and make the wrong guy confess, bullied by a plea deal.

Posted by: David Behar | Sep 5, 2017 3:28:51 PM

Annie has to disclose how much of her income or that of her employer comes from government, directly or indirectly.

Posted by: David Behar | Sep 5, 2017 3:30:54 PM

@Annie - exactly. The most prestigious journals in the field are mainstream. Reviews of the most widely read journals show that articles are micro-level, meaning individual level - not structural about race or class inequalities. The Division of people of Color at the American Society of Criminology has maybe 2% of the wider membership.

I've been an editor of Critical Criminology: An International Journal, which many people avoided for fear of being marginalized or having their work marginalized. Criminology does little with white collar crime, let alone corporate crime and crimes of the powerful.

Search and Destroy was written by Jerome Miller, a practitioner and reformer with an MSW. The New Jim Crow is written by a law professor. Neither is really an academic criminologist and I doubt that either would think of themselves as one.

Posted by: Paul | Sep 5, 2017 6:34:45 PM

Another factor. I practice law in a very sterile field of competition law. Until the last couple of decades, there wasn't a whole lot of practical scholarship in either the law or the economic underpinnings thereof. It is also a very politically neutral, generally speaking, field. However, some of the scholarship is influenced by an allegiance to a particular stakeholder in the system, mostly all major corpoorations.

In the last couple of decades, though, there has been a raft of scholarship in the area. And practitioners and policymakers "sat up and listened," for better or worse. There have been two pretty substantial revisions to the governing statutes in that time and various initiatives and common-law rulings affecting goings-on in the courts, both from the Supreme Court and the lower courts.

As far as I can tell, very few people actually in the field of criminal justice pay any attention whatsoever to research and scholarship, or if they do they rarely act on it. The legislation is all fear-driven and seemingly insensate, or based on century old norms and assumptions. The one exception might be juvenile justice.

Posted by: Fat Bastard | Sep 5, 2017 7:47:09 PM

Idiot. I didn't complete the sentence beginning with "Another factor" which was intended to be :the inertia of the status quo."

We seem to pass a criminal law and it just sits there moldering while we pass many more. Rarely as a society do we ever seem to revisit the laws and reconsider their wisdom. Especially when it seems that very little wisdom goes into many of them in the first place.

Posted by: Fat Bastard | Sep 5, 2017 7:50:07 PM

Thanks for your insights, Prof. Berman. As a criminal justice professional for 27 years, I suppose I became interested in criminal justice due in large part to being a victim of crime (residential and auto burglaries) when I was young, so my focus was primarily not on factors which cause crime, but in ameliorating the effects. However, during my career, I observed many abuses by police officers and prosecutors which tempered my views, and I dealt with thousands of "criminals" and learned that most of them are not evil incarnate, but muddling through life saddled with addiction, low intelligence, mental health issues, and cultural biases that make life difficult. The experiences brought balance to my perspective.

Posted by: John D Olive | Sep 6, 2017 9:45:49 AM

The Crime Victimization Survey was the gold standard of measurement of crime frequency. The Obama administration messed with it. I hope it is restored to its original state.

I would like it to be done on people who work with criminals, police, correctional officers, probation officers, even criminal law attorneys, etc. Then I would like it to be given to criminals on the street, then to criminals in prison.

I would bet they would have the highest rates of criminal victimization due to their physical proximity to areas with concentrated populations of criminals.

Posted by: David Behar | Sep 6, 2017 10:08:16 AM


Thank you as always.

This is no surprise.

I became aware of this over 20 years ago when I undertook a two year fact checking review of the death penalty debate.

I was anti death penalty when I started. Over and over, again, I found the anti death penalty data, by criminologists and other academics, to be highly perverted. Conclusions which could be considered pro death penalty writings was about 10% or less of the total.

To this day, nearly every law professor I come in contact with, still perverts McCleskey v Kemp (Georgia).

I doesn't matter what the academic discipline is. It's a near constant.

Posted by: Dudley Sharp | Sep 6, 2017 12:19:03 PM

Since multiple law professors are rather conservative and support the death penalty at the very least as a matter of constitutional policy, perhaps you need to encounter different law professors.

Posted by: Joe | Sep 6, 2017 1:06:17 PM

The Wright and DeLisi article focuses on --- and mischaracterizes --- a tiny slice of empirical criminology. Without Google Scholar, you'd have to search many volumes of the flagship criminology journal to find many articles of the sort they describe. Now Wright and DeLisi are probably correct to say that academic criminologists hold liberal values, vote Democratic, etc. In my experience, this can also be said about academic physicists, linguists, anthropologists, etc. The academic lifestyle attracts "liberal" people. It’s a real stretch to assume that a "liberal" world view can affect the quality of one’s research, however. That just doesn't happen. The contrary claim by Wright and DeLisi smacks of “sour grapes.”

Ironically, Wright and DeLisi edit and/or serve on the editorial boards of a dozen criminology journals. They are well positioned to police the literature for political bias.

Posted by: Richard McCleary | Sep 6, 2017 3:46:00 PM


Overwhelmingly, the law professors I encountered within the death penalty debate are liberal.

My considerable experience within the debate is very contrary to your statement.


What is your experience?

Posted by: Dudley Sharp | Sep 6, 2017 5:42:58 PM

I can think of dozens of abolitionist law profs and only a handful who support the death penalty and even fewer who are vocal in their support of the death penalty. That said, even supporters of the death penalty rarely seem to be all that vocal anymore -- e.g., why isn't any DP advocate asking why we have not had any federal executions for 15 years or whether recent upticks in violent crime might be linked to reduced use of capital punishment?

Posted by: Doug B. | Sep 6, 2017 6:25:31 PM

My statement: "multiple law professors are rather conservative and support the death penalty at the very least as a matter of constitutional policy." Even if "overwhelmingly" those you personally encountered were liberal, you can find "multiple" ones that were not.

The fact these law professors are not that "vocal" might be true on some level but even Doug Berman's "handful" is "multiple." There are multiple articles, essays and books out there that support the death penalty, at least as a matter of it being constitutional. Some are written by law professors. So, what are we doing here? Having fun with adjectives?

Posted by: Joe | Sep 7, 2017 4:47:27 PM

"why isn't any DP advocate asking why we have not had any federal executions for 15 years or whether recent upticks in violent crime might be linked to reduced use of capital punishment?"

Because they are but aren't vocal enough to "matter"?

Posted by: Joe | Sep 7, 2017 4:49:20 PM

An old familiar voice in these comments surely supports the death penalty and "is presently adjunct professor of law at Georgetown Law Center in Washington, D.C." He is not some rare outlier, I gather.

Amy Coney Barrett is currently nominated to the federal bench. A law professor. She personally seems to be against the death penalty. But, she co-wrote a law article underlining that capital punishment is constitutional and judges should not let their personal beliefs interfere with honestly applying the law even if there was some wiggle room to find some believable reason to do so.

Stephanos Bibas is another professor nominated. He co-wrote an article in 2008 with a familiar name entitled "The Heart Has Its Value: The Death Penalty's Justifiable Persistence." There are one or more other professors or former professors among the pool of judicial nominees by Trump. If they all oppose capital punishment both on policy and constitutional grounds, I would be surprised.

I just offer a taste here to answer "well give me examples" and more very well can be offered with more research.

Posted by: Joe | Sep 7, 2017 5:12:45 PM

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