What Can Europeans Learn From American Criminology? The Powers and Liabilities of Policy Transfer in Crime Control

Kevin Stenson, Buckinghamshire Chilterns University Coll

Crime control policy in Britain has been influenced by American criminological ideas about the effectiveness of 'zero-tolerance' policing strategies, 'three-strikes-and-you're-out' mandatory sentencing and 'boot camp' penal regimes. However, American criminology has also been influential in defining, 'What Works, What Doesn't and What's Promising' in routine crime reduction. This transatlantic trade of criminological ideas exemplify a universalism in which criteria for the evaluation and accreditation of crime control policies are assumed to apply irrespective of the local social contexts. American exports of crime control policy have been celebrated as a means of generalising best practice (Sherman et al, 1997) and criticised for diffusing a regressive and penal 'common sense' into hitherto enlightened European societies (Wacquant, 1990). But this universalism ignores the 'double hermeneutic', as evaluative criteria for 'what works' are subject both to the meanings which practitioners attribute to the 'effectiveness' of their actions and, in turn, the interpretation of these by the scientific community. This interpretative dimension suggests that, whilst policy rhetoric can be easily exported, the implementation of policy is always filtered by the specific political, economic and cultural contexts into which it is imported. To suggest, however, that such contexts effectively block the possibility and desirability of policy transfer is as implausible as the argument that criteria for what works and what doesn't can simply be emulated from one locale to another. The question for intelligent policy transfer is how to differentiate those elemtns of criminological theory that are context dependent from those that can withstand translation across localities as diverse as those found within, as well as between, America and Europe. The powers of intelligent transfer and liabilities of naively emulating crime control policies are illustrated in this paper through reference to the formulation and implementation of the British Home Office's Crime Reduction Programme.

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Updated 05/20/2006