Political Crime Research Paper

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Political crime is often ignored or given minimal attention by criminologists especially in the traditional American criminology/criminal justice university curriculum. It is frequently and easily confused with issues dealing with how politics affects the passage of criminal laws or how politics shapes public policy in matters of criminal justice. Unfortunately, this interpretation is unnecessarily naıve, narrow, and safe with respect to understanding the relationship between politics and crime and criminal justice. In order to introduce the reader to the corpus of research on political crime, this research paper contextualizes English language scholarly (and where appropriate popular) literature bearing on the subject of political crime looking at the categories that have been published. Despite their occasional utility, the review ignores the copious government reports that have been published in the form of senate or congressional inquiries, Royal Commissions, public prosecutions, and the like. This summary also does not include the numerous reports produced by activist organizations, professional groups, and consulting organizations that make their way into the public domain.

Definitional And Conceptual Issues

Before reviewing the concept of political crime, it is wise to settle on a relatively respectable definition of political crime. Although a handful of recognized scholars have proffered definitions of political crime, one of the best was provided by Beirne and Messerschmidt (1991, p. 240).

… crimes against the state (violations of law for the purpose of modifying or changing social conditions).. .[and]crimes by the state, both domestic (violations of law and unethical acts by state officials and agencies whose victimization occurs inside [a particular country]) and international (violations of domestic and international law by state officials and agencies whose victimization occurs outside the US).

If anything remains true about the study of political crime and the production of scholarly knowledge on this subject, it is that the parts are infinitely greater than the whole. In other words, the majority of research on the phenomenon of political crime deals with its subcomponents (e.g., sedition, treason, state-corporate crime), rather than attempts to consolidate these disparate foci. Thus, we have numerous articles and chapters in scholarly books on espionage/spying and state-corporate crime, and book-length studies on treason and on political terrorism, but few attempts have integrated all political crimes. This observation is extended to political crimes’ two major categories: oppositional political crime or state crimes.

Indeed, there are exceptions to this state of affairs. In terms of broad overviews that attempt to deal with the subject of political crime in a comprehensive manner, ten works stand out: Proal’s Political Crime (1898/1973), Schafer’s The Political Criminal (Schafer 1974), Turk’s Political Criminality (1982), Kittrie and Wedlocks’ The tree of liberty (1986), Ingraham’s Political Crime in Europe (1979), Hagan’s Political Crime (1997), Kittrie’s Rebels without a cause (2000), Ross’ Dynamics of Political Crime (2003), Head’s Crimes against the state (2011), and Ross’ An Introduction to Political Crime (2012). Although some of these treatments approach the subject of political crime with a rather narrow lens limiting their gaze to oppositional political crime, or a handful of prominent states (i.e., typically advanced industrialized democracies of one shape or form), others take a more broad brush approach.

Likewise, even though all of these books look specifically at oppositional political crime, all but a handful integrate the subject of state crime into their analyses. The disproportionate focus on oppositional political crime is predictable. Despite constitutional safeguards, especially the right to free speech engrained in most advanced industrialized democracies, many political activists, journalists, and scholars are downright timid about criticizing their government or assuming that the state can commit crimes against its own citizens.

As a reaction, since the early 1990s, some criminologists (typically critical criminologists) have produced books on state crime. Some of these contributions looked at the subject matter in the context of edited books with original chapters (e.g., Barak 1991; Ross 1995/2000, 2000; Chambliss et al. 2010). One of the earlier treatments was a collection of previously published journal articles (e.g., Friedrichs 1998a, b). More recently, books which have attempted to provide an integrated approach to the subject matter of state crime have been published (e.g., Rothe 2009).

Unfortunately, a considerable amount of scholarship in this field fails to build upon the work that has already been done. For example, much has been published in the English language legal journals on the subject of political crime but is frequently ignored by criminologists of political crime and vice versa because of unexplored and unexplained reasons, criminologists, sociologists of crime, and legal scholars rarely consult each other’s body of research. This scholarship is certainly relevant to the study of political crime, but it is not framed in the political crime context.

Assuming there is consensus on the previously mentioned definition of political crime and its subcomponents, then the following review attempts to look at the current state of research on this subject matter. With some notable exceptions (Alexander 1992a, b; Merton 1964; Moran 1974; Schafer 1974; Ingraham 1979; Turk 1992; Ross 2003, 2012), little of the research on political crime places the concept into a theoretical perspective.

Dominating the research on political crime are descriptive case studies, especially those focusing on political crime in advanced industrialized countries. The following reviews this work.

Case Studies

Occasionally articles and books about individuals charged and convicted of treason and sedition have been published. By far the greatest proportion of the literature (primarily written by journalists directed towards a popular audience) takes the form of case studies of individuals considered spies who have engaged in espionage. Numerous books covering both the activities of these unique political criminals operating in the United States (e.g., Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, Aldrich Aimes, Harry Gold, Robert Hanssen), Canada (e.g., Igor Gouzenko), and the United Kingdom (e.g., Anthony Blunt, Kim Philby) have been written, as have in-depth analyses of infamous political terrorists (e.g., Illich “Carlos the Jackal” Ramirez) and organizations such as law enforcement agencies, at both oppositional and state level, that have engaged in political crime.

In the United States, for example, many case studies examining the deviance, abuse of power, and/or crimes of the state criminogenic agencies have been produced. Federal agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and other prominent and selected national security/ intelligence agencies/organizations have more generally been singled out for intense investigation.

In Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia, we have a similar pattern with a smattering of articles and books focusing on intelligence/national security agencies and their misdeeds that have been published.

Country-Specific Studies

Whether because of access to data or simply an issue of differences and difficulties with understanding foreign languages, the majority of research on political crime focuses on its presence in the advanced industrialized countries. Countries that are the locus of political crime research are typically Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States. This makes sense because looking at the country as an individual unit is more manageable.

United States

As with the larger study of political crime, there are few comprehensive studies (e.g., books) on the subject focusing on its occurrence in America. Two efforts stand out. The first is Roebuck and Weeber’s Political Crime in the United States (1978). This book, though dated in content, provides a historical introduction to the subject matter. The other is Tunnell’s, edited book, Political Crime in contemporary America (1993). This publication consisting of eight chapters looks at both theoretical issues, actions (e.g., terrorism, hate crime, worker safety), and controversial criminal justice policies and practices (e.g., death penalty) that have been unduly influenced by political concerns. Unlike Roebuck and Weeber, the collection emphasizes both oppositional and state crimes.

Other than these two books, there has been a disproportionate (but necessary) focus by scholars on most subcomponents of political crime. To begin with, a considerable amount of research has been conducted by reporters and scholars on the problem of oppositional political terrorism in the United States. In addition to a couple of comprehensive treatments, the work to date has covered domestic right-wing groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nations, and the Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord. Books about the left-wing terrorist group Weather Underground have also been published, as have autobiographies by members of the organization.

Although a handful of broad-based historical treatments of state crime in the United States (though not labeled as such at the time of their writing) were produced during the 1970s, far more studies have been conducted on the subcomponents of these controversial government actions. Perhaps because of the dominance of the right to free speech, there have been numerous analyses of censorship.

Though not typically framed in the context of political or state crime, a considerable amount of literature exists on police activities of a questionable nature. Some of this research has focused on what some scholars call political policing (i.e., the use of illegal domestic surveillance and repression) (e.g., Theoharis 1978), the use of excessive force, police use of deadly force, and police corruption.

A focus on corruption both in federal government agencies, at the executive level (e.g., president), especially in connection with particular incidents (e.g., Watergate Affair, Iran-Contra) and with municipal police departments, has been dominant in the American literature. A handful of well-researched books, written by respected journalists, have told the stories of individuals accused of and/or caught up in corruption probes and/or periods of police corruption in major law enforcement agencies. Some of these incidents and studies have been the basis for movies produced by Hollywood studios for consumption by the general public.

Given the high levels of criminal violence that has historically plagued the United States, it is no surprise that political violence has been a subject of great concern. In addition to studies of political assassins and assassination, issues of oppositional political terrorism have been a staple of the political crime research in the United States.

The focus on the subcomponents of political crime is as true with oppositional crime as it is in state crime research. Much of the research focuses on case studies. The largest component has been the case studies of state-corporate crime (e.g., Michalowski and Kramer 2006), covering incidents such as the Ford Pinto design problems (1977), the Challenger space shuttle explosion (1986), the fire at the Imperial Chicken plant in Hamlet North Carolina (1991), nuclear weapons production, the crash of ValuJet 592 (1996), and the Bridgestone and Firestone tire controversy (2010).

Case studies and analyses of deviance and corruption in our correctional facilities, including the treatment of political prisoners and the use of excessive force in American jails and prisons, have also been important. Many of these studies have been idiographic/illustrative and not comprehensive in nature. Not only have jails and prisons been singled out as places where state crime has occurred, but in the past decade, America’s participation in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo has been selected for intense analysis.

Periodically the issues of slavery, racism, and genocide have been used as conceptual categories in which to analyze state treatment of its minorities, typically African Americans and American Indians.

United Kingdom

The problem of controversial police activities, especially corruption and use of excessive force, has been staples of contemporary British political crime research. Some of this has focused on the general topic of the policing of industrial disputes, while other scholarship has concentrated more specifically on the miners’ strike (1984) and police involvement and reactions to race-related riots during the 1980s.

The problem of state crime in the United Kingdom has been dealt with in the context of illegal actions by state intelligence agencies (e.g., Thurlow 1994). One notable full-length treatment is Doig (2011). More prominent, however, are case studies of state-corporate crime (Tombs and Whyte 2003).


Unlike the United States, with the exception of a couple of chapters appearing in edited books, there are no book-length studies of political crime in Canada or oppositional political crime or state crime in this country. This is not because it does not exist, but more so because of the supply and demand kinds of dynamics in the country. Four areas seem to be the focus on research on political crime in Canada. Like the United States, Canadian legal scholars have examined issues connected to freedom of expression, censorship, and emergency legislation.

Also prominent concerns the issue of political corruption at the provincial and federal level. Both articles and book-length treatments of the subject have been done. The other area has been police abuse in terms of violence/excessive force and/or illegal domestic surveillance particularly looking into the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). Other research has examined the frequency of political terrorism through the construction and analysis of events data bases. Some nascent literature looks at state crime in Canada (Corrado and Davies 2000).


Although no particular study focuses solely on political crime in Australia, Head’s book uses many examples from history of political crime. As a corollary, the Grabosky’s book Wayward Governance (1989) is a collection of case studies of well-known acts of state crime in Australia. He also provides a review of the literature on state crime and some initial thoughts on a theory of state crime and its control. Far more numerous are the case studies of state crime appearing as articles in journals or chapters in scholarly books. For example, because of its large aboriginal population, studies have been conducted on the fate of aboriginal deaths behind bars (e.g., Hazelhurst 1991).

Political Crime In Nonwestern Countries

By far the greatest shortcoming in terms of political crime scholarship has that which has occurred in nonwestern countries. This may be attributable to a number of factors including that studies may exist, but their accessibility to western researchers is poor and the fact that they are not written in English may preclude their integration into the larger body of work in English on political crime. One of the best collections of scholarship including nonwestern countries is C.E. S. Frank’s Dissent and the State (1989). Although outdated, three chapters reviewed dissent in Eastern Europe (e.g., Braun 1989) and another on Latin America (Facher and Fitzgibbons 1989). By far the literature on political crime that has been available in English has disproportionately been in the field of political terrorism where we have analyses of terrorists, terrorists’ organizations, and the causes and responses to this kind of political crime (Ross 2012).

Otherwise, linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky has produced a considerable number of books that look at state crime in countries and regions such as Indonesia and the Middle East. This has been done in the context of a critique of the questionable aspects of American foreign policy.

Again, case studies of numerous state crimes have been conducted by scholars and journalists, ranging from massacres to incidents of corruption to state-corporate crime.

Cross-National Studies

With the exception of the previously mentioned classic studies, few broad cross-national studies of political crime, whether oppositional or state, have been done. Attempts to provide this sort of thing have been done by authors of edited books (Barak 1991; Ross 1995/2000, 2000; Chambliss et al. 2010) in the concluding chapters of their books. Cross-national studies of a subcomponent of political crime, such as corruption, human rights violations, and oppositional political terrorism, are more common.

Explanations And Theories

With a subject that is as conceptually diffuse as political crime, it is not surprising that few experts have attempted to develop a holistic theory that explains the causal dynamics of this type of criminal/political behavior. In many respects, understanding how these actions emerge, who is involved, and why they take part is elusive. Needless to say, four attempts can be singled out. First, Merton (1938, 1964, 1966) provided one of the earliest explanations that, in part, touches on political crime. According to his anomic theory of deviance (i.e., strain theory), individuals live in societies that have a considerable amount of “structural dysfunctionalism.” This, in turn, leads people to experience an ends/means discrepancy. These processes combined together create stress. In order to minimize the discomfort, individuals have five options, one of which is rebellion (nominally a type of political crime).

Second, Moran (1974) describes “sequential stages which in successive combination might account for the development of a political criminal” (p. 73). The first are what he calls “predisposing conditions or background factors, the conjunction of which forms a pool of potential political criminals. These conditions exist prior to an individual’s decision to commit a political crime and by themselves do not account for his behavior” (pp. 73–74). The aforementioned conditions include the concept of strain and “a political problem solving perspective.” The latter consists of “situational contingencies which lead to the commission of political crimes by predisposed individuals” (p. 74). Moran advocates a five-stage “developmental model” consisting of the following steps: (a) strain, (b) “political problem solving perspective,” (c) a turning point event, (d) commitment to act, and (e) engaging in the political crime.

Third, Turk (1982) posits that although power and inequality are important factors in explaining political crime, the cultural gap between offenders and authorities is the primary factor that leads to the commission of political crime.

Merton’s, Moran’s, and Turk’s theories are useful in describing, and in some cases explaining, various types of political crime, but they are not very helpful in accounting for all types of this phenomenon. The dynamic nature of such activities needs to be more thoroughly explored, and furthermore, the macro- and micro-level processes in political crime should be linked.

Thus, (Ross 2003, 2012), anchoring his explanation in Sutherlands’ Differential Association Theory and Conflict Theory, developed the ISOR explanation. He argues that although many political crimes are committed by groups that are formally or loosely structured, whether oppositional in nature or formed by state organizations, these activities are, in the final analysis, committed by individuals. These people are working within the structural confines of both informal and complex organizations, political systems, political economies, and different cultures. They make decisions and act while often denying that any wrongdoing has occurred. In sum, according to Ross, political crime is the result of a complex interplay among individuals (I), situations/opportunities (S), organizations (O), and resource adequacy (R). These combined factors have been identified as the ISOR explanation. Ross argues that the ISOR relationship is not simply a resource mobilization theory or a crime prevention method brought into alignment with environmental design theories, but a more comprehensive explanation than previous attempts.

Research Methods

Similar to the previous comment made about theories of political crime, there is a shortage of diverse methods that criminologists (or other interested social scientists) investigating political crime have utilized. With the exception of a small but growing subset of studies of oppositional political terrorism using increasingly sophisticated quantitative techniques, the majority of research on political crime has used qualitative research methods, particularly single case studies. This is as true for journalistic accounts as it is those done by seasoned scholars.

Numerous reasons exist for this state of affairs. Political crime is complex and often requires cross-disciplinary knowledge. Additionally, no single database on political crime exists, nor will one be created in the near future. Thus, opportunities to test hypotheses, by mining an appropriate database are nonexistent. Moreover, the types of actions of political crime are so diverse and no single agency or organization collects this kind of information, so this presents numerous collection problems. Additionally, either scholars are timid about submitting proposals for funding to funding agencies or the agencies have not been enamored with the proposals they have received to agree to fund studies of political crime. Thus, what we have is a smattering of research studies that tend to be descriptive in nature with a shortage of empirical research methods.


Undoubtedly, this review has been limited by studies that have been conducted in English. It would be helpful for researchers to start moving to more integrative studies, beyond case studies of individuals and organizations and trying at the very least to do some cross-national studies. Similar critiques have been made by a collection of individuals who write in the field of state crime (Rothe et al. 2009). The production of this scholarship should not be interpreted in such a manner as to suggest that one country has more or less political crime than the other. Much of the choice of what gets researched, what gets submitted to journals, and what gets published is connected to the personal predilections of researchers, journal editors, and acquisitions editors with respect to what they think is interesting, their perceptions about the audience for their ideas, and the sophistication of the product submitted.


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