skip navigation


Register for Latest Research

Stay Informed
Register with NCJRS to receive NCJRS's biweekly e-newsletter JUSTINFO and additional periodic emails from NCJRS and the NCJRS federal sponsors that highlight the latest research published or sponsored by the Office of Justice Programs.

NCJRS Abstract

The document referenced below is part of the NCJRS Virtual Library collection. To conduct further searches of the collection, visit the Virtual Library. See the Obtain Documents page for direction on how to access resources online, via mail, through interlibrary loans, or in a local library.


NCJ Number: 77198 Find in a Library
Title: Crime, Punishment, and the Decline of Liberal Optimism
Journal: Crime and Delinquency  Volume:27  Issue:2  Dated:(April 1981)  Pages:169-190
Author(s): R Bayer
Date Published: 1981
Page Count: 22
Format: Article
Language: English
Country: United States of America
Annotation: This essay traces the transformation of postwar American liberalism from an optimistic to a pessimistic viewpoint via an analysis of the shifting liberal perspective on crime and punishment.
Abstract: Postwar American liberalism was an optimistic ideology which assumed the possibility of resolving the problems of the social order within the context of capitalism. This optimism has now been shattered. Because the question of the appropriate social response to the criminal has always been of deep concern to liberals, the changing attitude toward punishment provides a clear example of the collapse of the liberal faith in its capacity to fashion effective social policies and institutions. The exhaustion of the rehabilitative ideology, which for so long was associated with the liberal posture on crime and punishment, marks this change. This essay examines the writings on crime and punishment in six journals of opinion that have been identified with the various currents of postwar liberalism: 'Commentary,' 'Commonweal,' 'The Nation,' 'The New Republic,' 'The Progressive,' and 'The Reporter.' Editorials, articles, and book reviews published between 1945 and 1975 are examined to determine not only what was said, but also how statements are presented, including the language, the diction, and the tone of the material. Liberal thought tended to emphasize crime's social roots as well as its psychological bases. As in efforts to discover specific factors contributing to the prevalence of criminality among adults, great emphasis was placed on the role of poverty and racism in the 'creation' of juvenile delinquency and on unemployment. In addition, those who minimized the role of socioeconomic factors tended to suggest that the undeniable overrepresentation of the poor and, especially of the black and Hispanic underclass, in the official statistics on delinquency was an artifact of police practices. Virtually all writers in liberal journals were uncomfortable with the prospect of holding juveniles entirely accountable for their crimes. However, in the 1970's, liberal journals began expressing grave concern about the capacity of institutions to survive under disrupting conditions (riots and civil disobedience). Thus, the liberal outlook began to resemble the conservative perspective. The literature review reveals a growing recognition among liberal writers of the seriousness of urban crime and a profound shift from the rehabilitative ideology to a more punitive response to criminals. A total of 105 footnotes are included. (Author abstract modified)
Index Term(s): Capital punishment; Corrections effectiveness; Criminal responsibility; Criminology; Custody vs treatment conflict; Deterrence; Juvenile Corrections/Detention; Juvenile delinquency factors; Liberalism; Literature reviews; Offenders; Political influences; Punishment; Rehabilitation
To cite this abstract, use the following link:

*A link to the full-text document is provided whenever possible. For documents not available online, a link to the publisher's website is provided. Tell us how you use the NCJRS Library and Abstracts Database - send us your feedback.