How Law Enforcement Gets Brutal and How It Becomes Relaxed

Dieter Reicher, Graz, University of

In the presentation I will argue that "weak states" are more likely to use brutal punishments -- like the death penalty -- than "strong states". This argument is supported by two historical and two contemporary case studies: by the comparison of England and Austria from 1700 to 1914, and modern Europe and the United States. I developed a model relating long-term state formation processes to changes in the penal code. Basic settings of this model are: changes in the power balance between social classes and different modes of monopolizing violence. It will be argued that in "weak states" controlling crime is more up to local elites and not to distanced civil servants. These local elites have to deal with restricted means to fight crime. It is not easy, however, to install effective bureaucratic domination in such a situation. To replace ineffective control mechanisms with powerful police organizations may undermine the domination of these local elites. Thus, makes an extensive use of the death penalty more likely. This is especially true under conditions of a social order being challenged (or the belief of being challenged) by certain other social groups. In situations that social order is being challenged weak states are inclined to react with more brutal means of law enforcement. Strong states, on the other side, have the ability to rely on much power resources to control the population. They, therefore, can react in a more relaxed manner to the threat of breaking the law by many.

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Updated 05/20/2006