Classical School of Criminological Thought

This paper provides a critical analysis of a blog article about drugs, crime and prison overpopulation that was published on 18 June 2018 on the news website The Daily Blog. The article was headlined ‘Drugs, crime and the stuffing of our prisons’ and was written by Dr Liz Gordon (2018). The post itself doesn’t deal with a particular instance of crime, it instead focuses on explaining the relationship between drug abuse and the overpopulation of New Zealand prisons.

The article is focused on crime and its relationship with drugs and the problem this creates in New Zealand and its prisons. It specifically mentions inequality, neoliberalism, New Zealand’s own ‘war on drugs’, and the impact these factors have on prison populations. The main point of the article is that drug related offenses are on the rise and those with indigenous or low socio-economic backgrounds are the most at risk. The article suggests a direct relationship between the rising drug crime and New Zealand’s prison problem.

There has always been a strong association between the misuse of drugs and crime (Blumstein, Wallman and Farrington, 2006), and this is commented on in the article (Gordon, 2018). One of the first points is that drugs are a way to mitigate or avoid suffering, “they make the world seem a better place than it is” (Gordon, 2018). The article alludes to capitalism as a factor that has contributed to the drug abuse problem. The rampant inequality that is a hallmark of the system and a desire for escape make for a dangerous cocktail when combined with the human propensity toward addiction (Gordon, 2018). The author is of the opinion that New Zealand prisons are full of people who have a ‘mental illness, (mostly in the form of) addictions to alcohol and drugs’. The article describes how (at the time of writing) 90% of NZ prison population battles with mental illness or addiction. The author believes a cause of this is neoliberalism, citing reductions in public sector spending and the decline in quality of available care systems as some of the main contributing factors (Gordan, 2018). This suggests that the environment plays a significant role in the criminality of its populace. The article establishes an additional explanation for the rise in prison population, bringing to attention the impact of poverty on families and how that, coupled with an already unfair system, predisposes those from a low socioeconomic or indigenous background towards substance use and crime.

These explanations paint society as the main determinate that predicts drug abuse. This is a major pillar in the sociological positivist school of thought, particularly social disorganization theory and strain theory (Bradley, 2019). The explanations assume that external economic, environmental, cultural and societal factors are all linked to the misuse of drugs and contribute to rising prison populations. It appears that the author believes that most, if not all, behavior is either learned, or a consequence of the society an individual is part of. The article makes use of statistics and refers to sociological, legal, and cultural factors that may impact an individual as evidence to support the explanations it posits (Gordan, 2018). Only one non-empirical instance of evidence is used in reference to the change’s drugs can elicit from individuals. This is when the author refers to an anecdote about alcohols influence on their father (Gordan, 2018). Additionally, the author is cynical and critical of the state, attributing the global phenomena of legal and illegal drug industries to the advance of capitalism, they also call for a “more open, less unequal society”, and ideas have their roots in a Marxist critical viewpoint.

Explaining crime in these terms means that those who are susceptible to social change are most at risk of being involved in drug abuse and crime. This explanation disproportionately paints those individuals as being in an almost anomic state and ‘at risk’, this is a critique of social disorganization theory. This is important because anomic behavior can become criminal if it violates social norms (Bradley, 2019). The explanations given have the potential to stereotype and marginalize all people who fit into the ‘at-risk’ social category. Society then may come to associate these people with drug abuse and crime and in turn criminalize them. These explanations can also foster racist beliefs, as Maori are drastically overrepresented in both the New Zealand penal system and the poverty socioeconomic bracket (Bateman, 2018). This overrepresentation can also be explained by contemporary anarchist criminology which states that it is state law that continues to oppress minority groups (Bradley, 2019).

There are other ways that the rise in New Zealand’s prison populations and the over representation of the marginalized in the penal system can be explained. The increase in indigenous and impoverished offending might, for example be due to weak or broken bonds to society (Bradley, 2019). This is a fundamental part of social control theory. Unlike other criminological perspectives that attempt to explain why people choose to offend, control theory attempts to answer why people do not offend and instead obey rules. Hirschi (1964) explains in the ‘Causes of Delinquency’ that social bonds are integral to the prevention of crime as they provide external and internal constraints. If either an individual does not care for the expectations of other people or is not attached to the rule creating society, they then are ‘free’ to perform their own form of acceptable behavior (Bradley, 2019).

According to Hirschi (1969), crime is the result of weak and/or broken social bonds that connect individuals to a society. He argued that individuals are more likely to commit crime when they feel ostracized and unincluded from the social world. Individuals choose to commit crime because they subscribe to their own disconnected norms and values. According to control theory there are 4 components of a social bond.

Attachment: An attachment to society’s norms and other people fosters a conscience. Commitment: having an investment in society means damaging, or leaving it results in something lost for the individual. Involvement: An individual who is involved in school, work and other conventional activities will have little room for crime. Belief: A belief in a societies norm’s means an individual is less likely to break these norms. (Bradley, 2019)

The importance of free will, choice and responsibility mean SCT is more aligned with the classical school of criminological thought than it is related to positivist or determinist views. The increased risk of criminal behavior detailed in SCT as being related to a lack of a societal bond is not the only negative factor that can be associated with discrimination. The negative effects of discrimination on an individual are well documented (Williams, 1999) and when this concept is applied to the content from the article we get a dangerous concoction of individuals who are being discriminated against, are not bound to society, and turn to drugs and crime to escape their situation thus increasing their likelihood of (re)incarceration. SCT explains why those who are already involved in the penal system are more likely to remain involved and continue to be ostracized from the main populace.

It is likely that the significant increase in drug abuse and prison populations is due to already at risk and impoverished individuals becoming unbound from a society that does not offer adequate pathways of rehabilitation or re-inclusion.

In conclusion, ‘Drugs, crime and the stuffing of our prisons’, written by Doctor Liz Gordon (2018), puts forward multiple different explanations for the rapid increase of both drug abuse and prison populations in New Zealand. However, these explanations entirely blame society and leave no room for individual accountability. Though there is evidence of a societal role in the creation of the problem, there is also clear evidence that indicates choice as significant factor in crime. The idea that these people are being pushed by society (Hirschi, 1964) to make the choice to commit crime is just as likely.