conflict model | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Introduction / Criminology

The conflict model views crime as a result of social and economic conflict, emphasizing power, inequality, and systemic bias in criminal justice.

The conflict model in criminal justice offers an alternative perspective on the causes of crime and the operation of the criminal justice system. Rooted in sociological theory, the conflict model posits that crime arises from social and economic conflict within society rather than merely being the result of individual choices or inherent criminal tendencies. This viewpoint underscores the influence of power dynamics, inequality, and societal structures on crime rates and criminal behavior.

Understanding Crime through the Conflict Model

While other models of criminal justice may attribute criminal behavior to individual factors such as psychological tendencies or personal choice, the conflict model shifts the focus to larger societal and economic structures.

According to this perspective, crime is an outcome of the social and economic disparities that characterize society. Individuals, particularly those on the margins of society, may resort to crime due to a lack of opportunities, economic hardships, or systemic inequalities. Thus, the conflict model sees crime not merely as individual deviance but as a symptom of broader societal issues.

Power, Inequality, and Crime

The conflict model highlights the role of power and inequality in shaping criminal behavior. It postulates that those in power in a society – typically the wealthy or the political elite – have the resources and influence to shape laws and enforcement practices to protect their own interests and maintain their dominance.

Such a system often disadvantages certain groups, leading to their marginalization. Marginalized or disadvantaged people, such as those living in poverty, may find themselves in situations where crime appears to be the only viable route to survival or improvement of their circumstances.

Bias and Disproportionate Targeting

Proponents of the conflict model point out that the traditional criminal justice system is often biased and disproportionately targets marginalized groups. They argue that this is not a coincidence or an incidental flaw but rather an inherent characteristic of a system built to preserve existing power structures.

People of color, the poor, and the LGBTQ+ community, among other marginalized groups, are often subject to higher levels of scrutiny, more severe punishments, and systemic discrimination within the criminal justice system. This leads to a cycle where these groups are over-represented in the criminal justice system, further exacerbating social and economic inequalities.

Advocacy for Alternatives

Given these critiques, supporters of the conflict model advocate for alternatives to the traditional criminal justice system. They suggest that punitive measures and incarceration should not be the default response to crime. Instead, they argue for approaches that address the root causes of crime and work towards promoting social and economic equality.

One such alternative is restorative justice. Restorative justice programs aim to repair the harm caused by crime through facilitated dialogues and agreements between offenders, victims, and the community. These programs focus on offender accountability, victim healing, and community involvement rather than simply punishing the offender.

Another alternative is to invest in social and economic programs that address the root causes of crime. These might include education, job training, mental health services, and affordable housing. By providing more opportunities and support for marginalized communities, it is believed that crime rates could be reduced.


The conflict model in criminal justice provides a different lens through which to understand crime, focusing on social and economic conflict as the underlying cause. It highlights the role of power and inequality in perpetuating crime and criticizes the traditional criminal justice system for its bias and disproportionate targeting of marginalized groups.

As a response, proponents of this model advocate for alternatives such as restorative justice and social programs that tackle the root causes of crime. Understanding the conflict model can offer valuable insights into the complex interplay of societal structures, power dynamics, and crime and inform more holistic and equitable approaches to criminal justice.

[ Glossary ]

Last Modified: 05/14/2023


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