Radical Criminology Theory

Key Takeaways

  • Radical criminology is a conflict ideology that argues that those with the most power in capitalist societies make laws in order to exert control over the lower classes and neutralize potential insurrection.
  • Radical criminology evolved in the 1960s. Following Marxist principles, radical criminologists brought an ideological bent to criminology, shifting focus away from individual responsibility in crime and toward society-wide issues.
  • Radical criminologists examine the socially constructed nature of crime, arguing that the labeling of criminals in certain ways and a focus on street-level crimes averts attention from the more severe crimes of societal institutions.
  • Sociological conflict theories and radical criminology share the belief that the ruling classes use the labeling of crime as a way of exerting social control; however, sociological conflict theorists hold claim to empirical sociological studies as justification for their stance, while radical criminologists take an ideological lens.


Radical criminology’s thesis is that society functions in the interests of those with the most power, rather than those of the collective. According to this theory, while there is always a potential for conflict, the power of the ruling class neutralizes it.

Radical criminology rose to prominence in the 1960s. At the time, criminologists began to question traditional criminology. Conflict over racial issues and the Vietnam War resulted in organized violence against the state, such as rioting and other forms of violence.

Confronted by the political, social, and economic turmoil of the mid-20th century, members of government and academia sought ways to respond to and control these movements, leading to the expansion of the criminal justice system.

Connection to Marxism

Radical criminology is sometimes called Marxist, conflict, or critical criminology. The ideological confines of radical criminology continue to inform criminologists interested in studying their field from an anarchist, environmental, feminist, cultural, peacemaking, or restorative perspective.

What bridges all of these perspectives, ultimately, is their focus on the distribution of power and the ways that the law protects the interests of the ruling class.

Selective law enforcement means that the criminal justice system applies the law to different social groups in different ways. Whereas the working class and ethnic minorities are criminalized; the powerful and rich appear to get let off or ignored.

Many early radical or critical criminologists, often politically active in the 1960s, adhered to Marxist principles. Although Marx himself did not directly discuss crimes, his writings focused on law, power, and social and economic control.

In this vein, radical criminologists argue that the law serves those who have the power to translate their interests into policy.

Instead of being the product of public agreement, radical criminologists think of the law as a set of rules that the state defines and enforces, and that the criminal justice system itself even tries to neutralize opposers by targeting the actions of those who are the most oppressed.

In addition to subjugation, in radical criminology’s view, these laws also create hierarchies serving the interests of those in power (Mentor, 2010).

The ideological functions of crime are to give a reason for social control by the ruling class in order to prevent revolution from occurring. Criminals are often portrayed as ‘disturbed’ by the media rather than reveal the role that capitalism has in making people criminals.

Challenges to Traditional Criminology

Mainstream criminology focuses on theoretical explanations of the causes of criminal behavior and the measurement of crime.

Radical criminologists argue that this focus on individual responsibility in crimes — and, subsequently, punishments intended to deter individuals from choosing crime — serve the state’s interest in repression.

This blame on the individual, according to radical criminologists, diverts attention away from the structural factors that cause crime and allows those in power to not accept responsibility.

As a result of criminology”s, the general public”s, and politicians” hyperfocus on street crime, those in power are able to commit far greater criminal acts without fear of retribution (Mentor, 2010).

Radical criminologists are also concerned with how the phenomena of deviance, criminal behavior, and state responses to crime are, in themselves, socially constructed, believing that this examination gives insight into how state power is used to define challenges in authority.

For example, as Lynch and Groves (1989) noted, behaviors that threaten the social, economic, and political order in addition to being illegal are labeled by the state as terrorist as well as criminal.

The state can respond to terrorist acts in different ways than they do to simply criminal ones — often in a more extreme way. In a similar sense, repeat offender policies and consequently longer prison terms have centered on street crime rather than that of corporate criminals.

This pattern also reinforces the idea that individuals — and not institutions — are to blame for social problems. Essentially, radical criminologists means that the state’s social construction of crime allows the powerful to exert social control on the general population while ignoring the acts of those who serve those in power.

Radical criminologists also question the consequences of crime policies that prevent society from questioning the dehumanizing effects of social institutions.

According to radical criminology, the state uses the justice system to create a permanent underclass whose options are limited due to their frequent contact — and punishment by — the justice system.

As this underclass washes through a seemingly endless cycle of crime, prison, and recidivism, they are kept out of conventional paths to success (Morin, 2010).

Conflict Theories vs. Radical Criminology

Radical criminology is, in itself, a conflict ideology. A conflict ideology is one that bases its perspectives in the belief that those in power in societies define crime as a way of controlling the lower, working class and repressing threats to the power of the ruling class.

In the view of radical criminology, the problem of crime can be solved through overthrowing the capitalist system and establishing a society where class and economic conflict are eliminated (Bernard, 1981).

Social conflict theories share radical criminology’s view that crime is defined by the laws enacted by those in power seeking to quash behavior challenging their values and interests.

However, in divergence to radical criminology, social conflict theories also argue that this intent in law making is characteristic of every large and complex society where there are groups with varying values and interests competing to enact laws challenging threats to their existence (Bernard, 1981).

Another difference between radical criminology and social conflict theories is their basis. While radical criminologists have an ideological base for their criminological principles, social conflict theorists describe their theories as coming from empirically-based sociological studies (Bernard, 1981).


Both traditional criminologists and other conflict criminologists have critiqued radical criminology. Radical criminology has been criticized for its failure to address the multifaceted causes of criminal activity.

As a main point, critics have argued that radical criminology fails to explain why there are substantially different crime rates in different capitalist societies.

Radical criminology, in assuming that crime arises from class conflict — also assumes that all capitalist societies should have similar levels of crime, and countries that have successfully overthrown their capitalist structure should have eliminated crime.

Contrary to this assertion, however, crime in socialist countries does not often differ from that of capitalist ones (Cohen, 1998).


Bernard, T. J. (1981). Distinction between conflict and radical criminology. J. Crim. L. & Criminology, 72, 362.

Cohen, S. (1998). Intellectual skepticism and political commitment: the case of radical criminology. In The new criminology revisited (pp. 98-129). Palgrave Macmillan, London.

Lynch, M. J., Groves, W. B., & Roberts, C. (1989). A primer in radical criminology (pp. 158-158). New York: Harrow and Heston.

Mentor, K. W. (2015). Radical Criminology. Critical Criminology. https://critcrim.org/radical-criminology.htm

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.

Charlotte Nickerson

Research Assistant at Harvard University

Undergraduate at Harvard University

Charlotte Nickerson is a student at Harvard University obsessed with the intersection of mental health, productivity, and design.