Kenneth W. Mentor, J.D., Ph.D.
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Humanizing Criminal Justice Education: Alternatives to "Us" Versus "Them"

Kenneth W. Mentor, J.D., Ph.D.
Department of Sociology and Criminology
University of North Carolina Wilmington

Originally published in "Professing Humanist Sociology," Glenn Goodwin and Martin Schwartz, eds. Washington DC:  American Sociological Association, 2000.  


In our efforts to humanize criminal justice education many of us refer, often in vague terms, to humanist and/or peacemaking criminology. Although well intentioned, unless we are careful with our words and examples, we may provide our students an opportunity to misinterpret the meaning and goals of humanist criminology. For example, it is easy to encourage students to humanize victims. However, if our humanizing efforts focus solely on socially defined "victims" of crime, we run the risk of intensifying the "us" versus "them" thinking we intend to challenge. In light of this concern, this paper proceeds with the idea that it is not necessarily helpful to turn victims, by default, into fine examples of humanity, while offenders are demonized. It is challenging to encourage students to make an effort to understand, and care about, someone who has been convicted of murder. When doing so, we walk a fine line. While our goal is to introduce a humanistic viewpoint, we run the risk of turning away students who will tune us out as they assume we are "coddling" criminals. This line is worth walking. The recognition of humanity, even among those who have been defined as unworthy, represents a significant step toward a humanist understanding of the criminal justice system.

Before moving forward, it is important to emphasize that many lives have been shattered by crime. Clearly, some people are dangerous, violent, and act with no respect for others. Although we continue to seek alternatives, the behavior of these individuals may leave society with little choice but to incarcerate the individual, perhaps for the remainder of his or her life.

It is important to openly express the points stated in the previous paragraph in an effort to minimize the challenges inherent in any attempt to integrate a humanist perspective in the teaching of criminal justice. Without clarification, some students, as they conclude that the professor is crazy and/or soft on crime, will shut out the humanist message. In order to keep the attention and interest of the majority it is helpful to occasionally place the humanist message in perspective.


My efforts to move the teaching of criminology away from the "us" verses "them" mentality are motivated by frustration as well as hope. Mainstream criminology is the source of much of this frustration. Additional frustration stems from the fact that politicians continue to repeat the same policy errors. Many of the flawed policies, for example, three strikes laws, the "war" on drugs, and the incredible increase in incarceration, seem to be directly related to the "us" versus "them" mentality. The academic community endorses ineffective policy by failing to point out the errors of, as well as the motives behind, these policies.

The hope that motivates my efforts to humanize criminology is based on a belief (perhaps naive) that through our efforts to educate future policy makers we may begin to see positive changes in the criminal justice system. The strategies presented in this paper are intended to generate change among criminal justice students. My bet is that this change will be in a certain direction. The teaching strategies discussed in this paper are intended to challenge stereotypes. Humanist criminology can succeed to the degree that the dominant paradigm, which is typified by state directed violence, force, and coercion, is questioned. The paradigm is challenged each time a glimmer of humanity appears in an area we have been told consists of people who do not deserve to be treated with respect.

David Bruck, in Decisions of Death, quotes Tocqueville in suggesting that restraint in punishment "extends as far as our sense of social equality, and no further: "the same man who is full of humanity toward his fellow creatures when they are at the same time his equals becomes insensible to their affliction as soon as that equality ceases" (1991:525). Our justice system, as well as our society, contains a variety of dehumanizing mechanisms that assist in an effort to define "them." This definitional process allows a systemic reaction to crime that focuses on the individual rather than on the causes of his or her behavior.

Criminologists, through the teaching of criminology and criminal justice, have contributed to the "us" versus "them" mentality. Mills (1943) warned that due to market forces, "textbooks tend to embody a content agreed upon by the academic group using them" (1943:165). Several years later, Liazos echoed similar sentiments. In a review of popular deviance textbooks, Liazos pointed out that ideological biases in the field of deviance were "apparent as much from what these books leave unsaid and unexamined, as from what they say" (1972:104). As we strive to humanize criminal justice education we are able to avoid the narrow interpretations offered by mainstream criminology in our attempts to avoid the "us" versus "them" mentality.


The following discussion centers on strategies that encourage alternative ways of thinking about "criminals." Many of these strategies meet with resistance. As Quinney points out, many students "come to us entrenched in a conservative ideology of crime. . . . To advance an alternative, a non-violent and humane approach to crime, is met with considerable dismay and resistance" (1993: 438). In light of this predictable resistance, it may be best to begin the humanizing effort at the more benign end of the spectrum of deviant behavior. Once students begin to accept that the deviance creating machinery is extremely effective, and works equally well throughout the full range of "deviant" and "criminal" behaviors, they have taken the first step toward humanizing all actors in the criminal justice system.

"I Never Thought I Was a Deviant"

Liazos (1978) warned of sociology's fascination with "Nuts, Sluts, and Preverts." In contrast, a humanistic criminology course presents an opportunity to exercise a great deal of creativity in the selection of readings. One of my goals has been to select topics that illustrate the machinery that creates "deviants." A second goal is to illustrate that this machinery is so effective that "normal" people, people very similar to our students, can be efficiently defined as deviants.

One of my students' favorite readings, which does not appear in traditional deviant behavior texts, is a short story by Kurt Vonnegut. Harrison Bergeron (Vonnegut, 1961) describes a society in which everyone is equal. In Vonnegut's fictional society, the state attempts to limit non normative behavior or traits by creating "equality" through the use of "handicapping devices" such as lead weights, face masks, and loud noises intended to minimize logical thought. Harrison Bergeron is a great introduction to the power to define certain behavior or traits as unacceptable. The power to define, when coupled with the power to sanction, is very intimidating. Students are encouraged to look for examples, in today's society, where the state has the power to define and sanction certain behaviors. Their examples often include examples of "normal" people, often through no fault of their own, being defined as deviant.

Another interesting reading describes an example of socially defined deviance. Pearson (1987) writes about the Grateful Dead phenomenon. While many students identify with this particular form of behavior, others see the behavior of Deadheads as quite deviant. Again, how can it be that something that some define as "normal" is defined as "deviant" by others? Students enjoy this topic and are often surprised to find that some in our society have negative feelings about Deadheads.

Duff and Hong (1989) discuss the creation and application of definitions of deviance in relation to women bodybuilders. Becker (1953) describes a process through which "normal" people become marijuana users. Troyer and Markle (1984) describe the emerging social problem of coffee drinking. Petrunik and Shearing (1996) describe practices intended to lessen the impact of negative views of stuttering. Each of these readings provides a humanistic view of deviance and has been well received by my students.

If deviance and crime are seen as similar behavior, leading to different social sanctions, students are able to see that a major difference between deviance and crime is the degree to which society blames the actor for his or her "unacceptable" behavior. Students begin a move toward a humanist criminology once they begin to recognize the mechanisms active in assigning blame. These mechanisms, apparent throughout our system of justice, separate "us" from "them."

"Juvenile Delinquents" Are Human Too

Many of the most humanistic criminology writings are the result of qualitative research. For example, Goldstein (1990) interviewed "delinquent" juveniles. Goldstein suggests that the experience of being "delinquent" conveys expertise in understanding delinquency. Goldstein's efforts to provide "ordinary knowledge as a supplement to and, at times, even a replacement for professional scientific knowledge" (emphasis in original, 1990:3) provide a clear and compassionate picture of the world of juveniles.

Elliott Currie (1992), in Dope and Trouble, follows a similar path. He writes that he had learned a great deal through personal interviews and that others would benefit from hearing the stories, in their entirety, as told by the subjects of his research. Currie felt "that it was only by hearing their own stories that we could appreciate the complexity and uniqueness of each of their lives" (1992:xii). This approach is necessary, according to Currie, because stereotypes "mislead us and hobble a rational approach to the problems of troubled kids. They obscure the complexity of the forces that influence the paths young people take" (1992:xii).

Currie, Goldstein, and others have engaged in ethnographic research that allows us to develop a greater empathy for those who are defined as deviant, delinquent, or criminal. This type of research is a rich resource for anyone attempting to humanize the criminal justice process. After reading such personal stories only the most obstinate students will fail to recognize that those who attract the attention of the criminal justice system are not always so different from themselves.

A less thoroughly researched area, and thankfully one that generally does not include juvenile offenders, is the phenomenon defined as "serial killing." In the following section we turn our attention to the task of humanizing some of the "least human" participants in our society.

Natural Born Killers?

As might be imagined, this group can be extremely difficult to humanize. One method that has been somewhat effective, and very popular with students, has been to view serial killers or other mass murderers as they have been depicted in film. One of the most popular films, although I do not show it without numerous disclaimers and the clearly elaborated opportunity to miss class without fear of retribution, is Natural Born Killers. The film's main characters, Mickey and Mallory, are depicted as a violent couple with real, although unusual, problems. The film pushes the viewer to wonder how these individuals could have been created. The impact of violent media messages, child abuse, education, and other socialization events are outlined in the film. Students do not believe, in spite of the film's title, that Mickey and Mallory were born to live a murderous lifestyle. Instead, students recognize that this lifestyle was the product of a socialization process not totally dissimilar to their own.

Another film, a well done documentary directed by Nick Broomfield, presents the human side of a female "serial killer." Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, introduces us to a woman who has killed at least seven men. The documentary presents Wuornos as a victim of an uncaring criminal justice system. She is represented by a greedy and incompetent attorney, who would clearly prefer to be a rock star. Aileen's "mother" demonstrates her love for her newly adopted daughter by encouraging her to plead no contest to multiple murder. The logic behind this plea, which is supported by the attorney, is that this plea, and the resulting death penalty, will accelerate the process through which Aileen will receive God's ultimate forgiveness. Other players include police officers who ignore evidence that would reduce the value of a story they were attempting to sell to the networks.

Ms. Wuornos, an admitted prostitute who claims that she killed these men because they were about to rape and kill her, is a victim as well as offender. Students are shocked to learn about her situation and question whether it is a true story. The documentary effectively demonstrates the humanity of an individual who has been victimized throughout much of her life. The effectiveness of the dehumanizing ritual active throughout the justice system is also apparent.

"But Some of Them Deserve to Die"

The case of Aileen Wuornos is an obvious link to the issue of capital punishment. Since nearly all death penalty writings, at least those that spring from the scholarly community, are in opposition to the death penalty, each may be helpful in a humanist criminal justice course. These writings may offer moral or religious arguments in opposition to the death penalty. Others argue against the idea of general deterrence (Archer et al., 1983). Others document the discriminatory application of the death penalty (Baldus et al., 1986). Another viewpoint, which avoids the problem associated with humanizing murderers, is that a number of innocent humans have been executed by the state (Bedau and Radelet, 1987).

Another strategy, which has been fairly successful in my teaching, includes death row stories. Books by Dicks (1995) and Radelet (1989) include a collection of stories from people on death row. The narratives are offered by the condemned, those who work on death row, the families of both victim and offender, and from a variety of observers. Again, the words of those involved in the system provide compassionate evidence in support of a humanist criminology.


One of my most effective attempts to humanize deviance and criminology involved a campus and classroom visit from a homeless man who had been an active member of the Hell's Angels. He was an "enforcer," claimed to have taken several lives, and had served time in prison. At the time of his visit, he was no longer an active member of the Hell's Angels. This man suffered from a genetic disorder that had forced him to undergo over 300 surgeries. He was not physically attractive in traditional terms. He was from a poor family and had lived a violent life, in direct contrast to the students at the exclusive liberal arts college he was visiting.

I was reluctant to issue an invitation when the opportunity was presented. I felt that his visit might be little more than a "freak show." I was concerned that my students, who would see this individual as very different from them, would move to the "us" versus "them" mode of thinking. Fortunately, I underestimated these students. They wanted to learn all they could from this man. They treated him with dignity and honored him with their sincere efforts to understand his life. A one day visit from this man, much more like "them" than "us," taught over 100 individuals that the lives of "us" and "them" are intricately intertwined.

This paper briefly outlines specific strategies that can be integrated into any criminal justice course. Along with these strategies, the humanistic criminal justice educator should always be on the lookout for simple stories or experiences that illustrate the humanity of those who are caught up in our system of justice. For example, a good friend of mine teaches Adult Basic Education classes at a large state prison. This prison is known for holding some of the state's most dangerous prisoners. Several students in her class had just earned their GED and the class was celebrating their success with a day away from the books. The class greatly enjoyed a rousing game of "Outburst." My students are always amused by the image of "hardened criminals" laughing, joking around, and playing a trivia game. Their amusement provides an opportunity to ask, "why wouldn't they enjoy this game, it's a lot of fun isn't it?" This simple story and question, with no further elaboration needed, has a great deal of humanizing potential. The "us" versus "them" machinery is stopped cold by the image of murderers playing board games.

Perhaps this is the right time to humanize criminology. Immarigeon writes that "there are numerous cracks in the armor" that protects a criminal justice policy that relies heavily on repressive measures (1991:429). He argues that an "opening therefore exists to challenge and organize against the prevailing paradigm of justice" (1991:429). Criminology has "too often served the violence of criminal justice" (Quinney, 1993:8). Change is unlikely unless we, as criminologists, begin to challenge the dominant paradigm. This challenge need not involve major policy statements or ground breaking research. The tools to move toward a humanist criminology are more subtle and are easily available. These tools can be used to encourage future policy makers to resist pressures to demonize offenders. Instilling this resistance may be the best hope for creating a humanist, compassionate, and peaceful justice system.


Archer, D., Gartner, R., and Beittel, M. 1983. "Homicide and the Death Penalty: A Cross-National Test of a Deterrence Hypothesis." Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, 74, 991.

Baldus, D., Pulaski, C., and Woodworth, G. 1986. "Arbitrariness and Discrimination in the Administration of the Death Penalty: A Challenge to State Supreme Courts." Stetson Law Review, 15, 133-261.

Becker, H.S. 1953. "Becoming a Successful Marihuana User." The American Journal of Sociology, 59, 235-242.

Bedau, H.A. and Radelet, M.L. 1987. "Miscarriages of Justice in Potential Capital Cases." Stanford Law Review, 40, 21-179.

Bruck, D. 1991. "Decisions of Death." In J.H. Skolnick and E. Currie (eds.) Crisis in American Institutions, Eighth Edition. New York: Harper Collins.

Currie, E. 1992. Dope and Trouble. New York: Pantheon Books.

Dicks, S. (ed.). 1995. Young Blood: Juvenile Justice and the Death Penalty. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Duff, R.W. and Hong, L.K. 1989. "Management of Deviant Identity Among Competitive Women Bodybuilders." In D.H. Kelly, (ed.) Deviant Behavior. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Goldstein, A. 1990. Delinquents on Delinquency. Champaign, IL: Research Press.

Immarigeon, R. 1991. "Beyond the Fear of Crime." In H.E. Pepinsky and R. Quinney, (eds.) Criminology as Peacemaking. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Liazos, A. 1978. "The Poverty of the Sociology of Deviance: Nuts, Sluts, and Preverts." Social Problems, 20, 103-120.

Mills, C.W. 1943. "The Professional Ideology of Social Pathologists." The American Journal of Sociology, 49, 165-180.

Pearson, A. 1987. "The Grateful Dead Phenomenon: An Ethnomethodological Approach." Youth & Society, 18(4), 418-432.

Pepinsky, H.E. and Quinney, R. (eds.) 1991. Criminology as Peacemaking. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Petrunik, M. and Shearing, C.D. 1996. "Stutterers' Practices." In E. Rubington and M.S. Weinberg, (eds.) Deviance: The Interactionist Perspective, Sixth Edition, Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Quinney, R. 1993. "A Life of Crime: Criminology and Public Policy as Peacemaking." Journal of Crime and Justice, 16(2), 3-9.

Radelet, M. (ed.). 1989. The Death Penalty: Essays on a Cruel and Unusual Punishment. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Troyer, R.J. and Markle, G.E. 1984. "Coffee Drinking: An Emerging Social Problem?" Social Problems, 31(4).

Vonnegut, K. 1961. "Harrison Bergeron." Reprinted in K. Vonnegut, Welcome to the Monkey House (1988). New York: Laurel.


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