Reform or Moral Outrage - The Choice is Yours

David J. Smith

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In their reply to my commentary on The Case for the Prosecution, McConville, Sanders, and Leng (henceforth MSL) offer a highly restricted choice between ‘Descriptive’ and ‘Critical’ sociology. The main purpose of this note is to suggest that the important choice does not lie between those two alternatives. Instead, we have to decide between seeking to explain the social world as part of an effort to transform it, and making expressive critical gestures, which are neither intended nor expected to change anything.

In the first section I explain why any criminal justice system must incorporate crime control values, especially at the front end, and why attempts to transform the system must start from recognizing this. In the second section, I consider how crime control practices (including policing and criminal justice) can be changed, and I argue that MSL's position on the influence of the law on these practices is self-contradictory. In the third section, I illustrate these points by returning to the example of stops.

Towards the end of their reply, MSL argue that my analysis amounts to an endorsement of malpractice, injustice, and unequal treatment within the present criminal justice system. Against that, I wish to illustrate the importance of understanding the social world, in order to change it. That is the tradition of social science, associated with social reform, that has been continued in my work, such as ‘Police and People in London’ (Smith and Gray 1985), ‘Racial Disadvantage in Britain’ (Smith 1977), and ‘Inequality in Northern Ireland’ (Smith and Chambers 1991). This reformist tradition is the one that is genuinely engaged in the process of change.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)616-22
JournalBritish Journal of Criminology
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1998


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