Conflict theory is a field of sociology that focuses on competition and the dynamics of conflicting interests between different social groups as the fundamental force underpinning culture and politics. Conflict theories of criminal justice look at criminal laws as a means by which more prosperous and powerful social groups exercise control and containment over socially disadvantaged groups.
Race-based conflict theory posits that the criminal justice system is skewed in favor of members of the socially-dominant white race, while biased against members of Hispanic, black, or indigenous racial and ethnic groups. "Radical" criminology is a conflict theory roughly following Marxist ideas holding that society is split along lines of economic prosperity, with the wealthy using criminal laws and punishment to oppress the poor and working classes. Other types of conflict theories of criminal justice include perceiving of the conflicts underlying what constitutes a crime as arising from academic and philosophical differences as to what comprises the best course of action for society, and values conflicts regarding perceptions of private property, rights or the appropriate conditions needed for peaceful living.
Conflict theories of criminal justice provide a significant touchstone for assessing the functionality and goals of any given criminal justice system. For example, according to a policy paper by the American Society of Criminology, one-third of all black males in the United States will be incarcerated at some point in their lifetime, a number which is significantly disproportionate to the incarceration rate of white males, or of females of any race. Racial conflict theory presents one potential explanation to be considered in evaluating this data.
While crimes and punishments have been prescribed by social systems since pre-Biblical times, criminology as a social institution involving police, courts and jails, is a modern development with seeds of development in the eighteenth century and significant growth in the nineteenth century through the present day. Writing in the mid-1800s, Karl Marx developed an economic conflict theory applicable to criminal justice as well as many other social institutions, positing that industrialization led to excess population, which was then socially and politically oppressed by those who benefited from the developing capitalist system. Max Weber, writing at the turn of the 20th century, viewed human culture as more beneficent than Marx did, viewing the conflicts underlying criminal justice as competing values rather than intentional oppression. George Simmel, at around the same time as Weber, looked at concepts of crime arising from clashes in cultural groups newly brought into contact with one another by increasing immigration patterns.
Conflict theories function as one means of explaining the overarching philosophies behind different criminal justice policies and systems. As a branch of social philosophy, criminal justice conflict theories do not dictate what is right or wrong, or declare which system of criminal justice is superior. Rather, conflict theories are one mode of describing and analyzing the intentions and impacts of different criminal justice systems and events. For example, a normative analysis of the death penalty might look at costs, deterrence effects and systemic safeguards against improper convictions to describe whether the death penalty works to stop crime. A racial conflict theory analysis would examine the racial composition of defendants, victims, jurors and judges to determine if the death penalty works as a means for Caucasians to oppress black Americans.
Popularization of conflict theories of criminal justice has various effects. One effect amongst the general public may be, ironically, to exacerbate racial tensions. Publication of reports pointing out the disproportionality of incarceration of certain races can result in public and media backlash asserting that the data is due to certain races having a greater proclivity for taking part in criminal activities, rather than due to other races' use of criminal laws to affect racial oppression. Another effect may be to encourage policy makers to change laws with obviously skewed impacts. For example, the U.S. Congress is presently under pressure to change onerous sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine, a less expensive drug favored by youths of lower socio-economic status, to be equivalent to the more lenient punishment for powdered cocaine, a more expensive drug favored by wealthy youth, college students and business persons.