Describe the criminological enterprise. What are the ethical issues of researching crime? A critical issue facing criminologists involves recognizing political and social consequences. Often, criminologists forget the social responsibility they have as experts in areas such as crime and justice. The lives of millions of people can be influenced by criminological research data. Debates over gun control, capital punishment, mandatory sentences, gang activity, are ongoing and often contentious. Some criminologists argue for social services and rehabilitation programs for the reduction of crime while others suggest massive prison programs and tough criminal sentences lower the crime rate. Once they accept the role as an expert on law-violating behaviors, criminologists put themselves into a position of power; the consequences of their actions are enormous. Under ideal circumstances, criminologists would choose a subject for study which is guided by their own scholarly interest, pressing social needs, the availability of accurate data, and other similar concerns. However, in recent years, a large influx of institutional and government funding has influenced criminal inquiry. This has also influenced the direction in which research has gone.
Because state and local governments provide a significant percentage of available research funds, they may also dictate the areas that can be studied. For example, in recent years, the federal government has spent millions of dollars funding long-term cohort studies of criminal careers. Some areas of inquiry may be ignored due to the fact that funding or sponsorship is not available. When the institution funding the research is itself a principle subject of research a potential conflict of interest may also arise. Governments may be reluctant to fund research on fraud and abuse of power committed by government officials, or they may place influence on criminologists seeking research funding, if criminologists are too critical of the government’s efforts to reduce or counteract crime. Even when criminologists maintain discretion of choice, the discretion of their efforts may not be truly objective.
Ethics are also questioned in cases where subjects are misled about the purpose of the research. When minorities are asked to participate in surveys on their behavior or on an IQ test, they’re rarely told in advance that the information they provide may later be used to prove the significance of racial differences in crime rates. Should subjects be told of the true purpose of a survey? Would such disclosures make research more meaningful? Criminologists must take extreme care when they select subjects for research studies to ensure that they’re selected in an unbiased and random manner. It is unethical to provide a special treatment program for one group while depriving others of the same opportunity. Criminologists should be careful to protect subjects from experiments that also cause them harm. For example, the “Scared Straight” program, which brought juvenile offenders into contact with hardcore prison life, discovered that the juveniles may have been harmed by the experience. Rather than being frightened into conforming to a “straight” life, subjects actually increased their criminal behavior.