Conflict criminology is largely based on the writings by Karl Marx. He asserted that capitalist economies must recognize that the wealthy elite dominated the poor in society causing conflicts and crimes. These capitalists exploit others. Ideas, systems, networks, infrastructure, policies and institutions are designed in such a way that they ensure that the poor are always marginalized, vulnerable and oppressed. These members of society may turn to crime to gain wealth that will make them equal to the capitalist wealthy class. By getting into crime, they will be able to survive. It causes conflicts between two classes in society. Therefore, conflict criminology derives its name from the fact that there is no social agreement between citizens and the state (Siegel, 2000).
In the late 1890s, officials from Philadelphia asked W. E. B. Du Bois to conduct a research on Philadelphia’s notorious Seventh Ward (Lynch, 1997). Du Bois agreed to do a comprehensive analysis of the region. He outlined the conditions of the area and pointed possible explanations for high crime rates among African Americans. Du Bois wrote that the mass migration of African Americans from the South to the North brought about adjustment problems in this group of people. They were used to the southern way of life. Du Bois explained that age, unemployment and poverty were factors that caused high rates of crime in society. He however added discrimination pointing that inequality was on the rise. Blacks were arrested for minor offences unlike their white counterparts. They served longer sentences for similar crimes and were subjected to discrimination when seeking employment (Lynch, 1997).
The empirical study of race in Philadelphia is descriptive. It offers little theoretical works. However, it is significant because it analyzes some social problems in society, namely, crime and class. Du Bois introduced the “Talented Tenth” concept, whereby he described the elite group assuming the leadership in black society. He later narrowed this group down and refereed to it as the “Guiding Hundredth” (Lynch, 1997). He urged them to lead a Marxian economic revolution. Du Bois asserted how white leadership (benevolent despots) could easily improve the lives and living standards of blacks in America. He later became to blame capitalists from the North for undermining efforts of reconstructing the South. He gave up on the “Guiding Hundredth”. Du Bois concluded that both whites and blacks bore great responsibility for high levels of poverty and poor relations among different races in America (Lynch, 1997).
W.E.B Du Bois was largely ignored by mainstream criminologists because he supported the role of blacks in politics and development in America. It did not augur well for historical writers and researchers who continued to favor conservative elements. The latter referred to rich landowners, businessmen, and the Northern Democrats, while disparaging the Radical Republicans in the South. Du Bois was seen to be a radical republican (Lynch, 1997).
According to Marx, there are two classes in society, workers and capitalists. A class conflict and struggle cannot be avoided in society. It is like a permanent system because workers and capitalists are always at odds with each other. Capitalists accumulate wealth, while workers maintain their well-being by working and serving the former. They only advance their interests by resisting policies made by capitalists who want to exploit them continuously. The result of this resistance is a struggle and conflict. It is seen in many aspects of life such as the formation of unions, which organize strikes, political campaigns and policies related to immigration (Siegel, 2000).
According to Marx, the ruling class gives rise to crime and deviance (as cited in Siegel, 2000). If one does not conform, then he or she is punished. Such institutions as the police, prisons, justice system, schools, family and religion are created to act as a means of social control. White-collar crimes often committed by powerful people in society remain unpunished and ignored. Crimes committed by less powerful people, such as street crime and burglary, are more serious and are severely punished. Marxists also assert that the law guides the two social classes differently. The working class is highly policed. Power is held by controllers of the economy. The state, law enforcement agencies and bodies responsible for social control serve the interest of the ruling class. A fake democratic process masks bourgeois, which pass laws. The police then enforce laws together with the powerful media (Siegel, 2000).
Criminal law also favors the ruling class more than the working one. When a member of the former group commits an offence like corruption or fraud, he or she is treated by the law preferentially. When charged in a court of law, this person is likely to be unpunished because he or she will certainly “buy justice”. Rich capitalists cannot be jailed because of a criminal offence. Judges allow them to go free. In addition, when a member of the ruling class commits a crime, other members of this group rally behind him or her in solidarity and help find “justice.” However, when a member of the working class makes a mistake, he or she is likely to suffer. A judgment is pronounced as soon as the person faces trial. It becomes hard for this person to afford a good lawyer to represent him or her because the one does not have money and power (Jones, 2006). Therefore, since the justice system turns out unfair to the poor, favoring the ruling class, there are conflicts and disagreements between these two groups.