Is cross-national and comparative research on the criminal justice system useful?

Michael Tonry

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

35 Scopus citations


Comparative and cross-national research on the criminal justice system is burgeoning. Case studies of institutions and systems in individual countries are proliferating, as are theoretical and quantitative cross-national analyses of the predictors of crime rates and punishment patterns. Some things have been learned. Penal policies and punishment patterns are outgrowths of distinctive national histories and cultures. General theories of the culture of control, penal populism, and the effects of neo-liberalism have been refuted. Cross-national analyses of crime rates and trends have shown that trends in homicide and property crime have moved in parallel, though sometimes with lags, in all developed Western countries since the 1950s. The evidence is less clear concerning patterns of non-lethal violence. It increased in all Western countries between the 1960s and 1990s and in most has since declined. The clear weight of the evidence suggests it has declined in all countries; in some, rates appear to be stable or increasing but this is probably misleading and results from the interacting effects of changing cultural patterns of tolerance of violence, increasing victim reporting to the police, and increasing police registration of crimes reported. On other subjects, most notably when and why countries adopt policies and institutions pioneered elsewhere, comparatively little is known.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)505-516
Number of pages12
JournalEuropean Journal of Criminology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jul 14 2015

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2015, © The Author(s) 2015.


  • Comparative criminal justice research
  • comparative penal policy
  • cross-national crime trends
  • cross-national criminal justice research


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