Harms of Reduction and Repression Essay

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This essay provides a definition of harms of reduction and repression and concludes with illustrations outline the ethical consequence relevant to criminal justice. Stuart Henry and Dragan Milovanovic coined the phrases harms of reduction and harms of repression and provided the most complete treatise on the comingled and related topics of these harms. At the most fundamental level, these terms refer to the position taken most often by radical and critical (but increasingly all types of scholars) that humans have a right to “nutrition, nurturance, health and life.” Harms of reduction occur when offended parties experience a loss of some quality relative to their present standing. They could have property stolen from them, but they could also have dignity stripped from them, as in hate crimes. Harms of repression occur when people experience a limit, or restriction, preventing them from achieving a desired position or standing. They could be prevented from achieving a career goal because of sexism or racism.

Many types of harm—real, imagined, and objectified—are possible under this premise. Most commonly cited are the often-insidious crimes of gender oppression, gender harassment, hate crime, and racism. Since these domains encompass demographic and economic differentials, power relations are critical to the comprehensive understanding of harms of both reduction and repression. Power relations explicitly assume one privileged party is in a position (power) to deny the weaker party an ability to achieve its full potential by removing of status and/or blocking opportunity for upward progression (e.g., by enactment of certain laws). The power differential need not be manifest until after the act; the act of crime is an expression of and embodiment of the power differential. Herman and Julia Schwendinger noted crime is not always the act of individuals but instead, “socially injurious behavior should be extended beyond a focus on ‘other’ as harm creator, to include social systems and social relationships that inflict injury.” Consequently, it is not just individuals who can create these types of harm.

Government, by the enactment of certain laws or by ignoring some harms, can also create injustice and crime. For instance, law and social institutions may legitimize and legalize harm when the use of power is abused by focusing on (or neglecting) specific groups. Traditionally, this thesis was the radical theorists’ argument that capitalist forms of government legislate, orchestrate, administer, and perpetuate harm through economic domination. More specifically, as noted by Massimo Pavarini, “the definition of what counts as deviance and as social control is seen as decisively influenced both by those who have the power to define and also to those who have the possibility to resist these definitions.” There are other conceptualizations, however.

Couched in a social psychological context, these constructs are best understood in Maslowvian terms. According to Abraham Maslow, humans share a hierarchy of needs; in order of importance these are: physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, and finally self-actualization. While harms of repression and reduction could impact all levels, for this discussion the most germane is perhaps self-actualization. Maslow defined this as a person’s recognition of, and then achieving, his or her full potential. Henry and Milovanovic’s harms of reduction and repression would necessarily prohibit anyone from achieving self-actualization since external repressive forces would limit someone from reaching his or her full potential.

The relevance for crime and social justice is that unequal power relations created by the social construction of difference provide the foundation for crime. In Western society, these harms (crimes) are clustered around specific domains including economics (class, property), gender (sexism), race and ethnicity (racism, hate), politics (power, corruption), morality, ethics (avowal of desire), human rights, social position (status and prestige, inequality), psychological state (security, well-being), self-realization, biological integrity, and others. Clearly this laundry list encompasses many types of social harm, some of which are not currently defined as crime. However, since the ruling political class (regardless of political party affiliation) defines what is a “crime,” it is not surprising that many crimes perpetuated by power differentials are not included in legislation. Increasingly, however, many harms are codified as either civil or criminal.

Finally, Henry questions, “if expressions of power differentials that harm others are themselves ‘crimes,’ does that mean the criminal justice system, in exercising power over offenders, in imposing punishment on offenders, and in depriving them of liberty, is engaged in harms of reduction and harms of repression? If so, how does a criminal justice system based on coercion of those who harm control those harms without themselves imposing harm?” To help clarify these arguments some tangible examples may be beneficial. First, consider an illustration of harm of repression that occurred this year at a large public university. If a wheelchair-bound student is denied access to a classroom due to the lack of an elevator, has not a harm of repression been committed against this student? Current American law under the Americans with Disabilities Act, requires wheelchair access. However, older buildings are exempted from the requirements based on economic concerns—which government considers more important than the wheelchair students’ right to learn, become self-actualizing, and possibly make a difference in society. The university, at great expense, built an elevator but was not required to do so.

Likewise a harm of reduction might occur when a behavior is used to marginalize or criminalize someone, thereby oppressing them. In many countries smoking marijuana (or even chewing on coca leaves) is considered normal even medicinal or spiritual behavior. However, the position on drug use taken by the U.S. government shows that constructing the consumption of illegal drugs as criminal reinforces rather than weakens the tendency of those defined as drug takers to feel themselves opposed to the rest of society.

On the other hand, the social construction of drug addiction as a therapeutic problem for which addicts need help inexorably undermines their oppositional stance and hence limits their freedom, as noted by Pavarini. Should drug abuse (not drug use) be constructed as a criminal problem or as a public health problem? Pavarini further questions does the choice “whether to criminalize a given social problem, or to control it in some other way, through psychiatry or social security, for example, or, more basically still, to deal with it at the stage of primary socialization, always goes back to the social construction of the problem itself?”

Consider that in the United States, at least 317 people die directly from accidental acute alcohol poisoning each year; yet, no one has ever died directly from smoking marijuana (though cancer is an indirect risk). One artificially created substance (alcohol) is socially constructed as acceptable, while the other more naturally occurring substance (marijuana) is demonized. One substance is taxed, commoditized, and glorified while the other criminalized. One might posit that acceptability is predicated on which is the drug of choice for those in positions of power. The harm caused to those arrested for marijuana possession (not to mention distribution) is significant and caused completely by government regulation, not by health concerns. In the United States, every 42 seconds someone is arrested for marijuana possession, and the government spends over $7 billion a year on marijuana eradication. When one examines the demographics (young, minority, males) of those most often arrested for drug use in the United States a clear oppressive trend is suggested, and a harm of reduction occurs, due in part to limited career opportunities following arrest.

In conclusion, the ramifications of harms of reduction and repression can be detrimental and permanent. Bruce Arrigo and Heather Bersot concluded that when a person is rendered unable to make a difference productively due to a system or a systems agent, then that person is “rendered less than what he or she could be (i.e., further restored, recovered, or healed).” Likewise, a harm of repression, when an “individual’s ability to be different dynamically is hindered by the actions of some system’s agent,” can result in permanent negative connotations, implications, and consequences.

The student arrested for marijuana possession, for instance, will have greatly diminished career options and opportunities available to them. Chronic or multiple offenders may be forced by circumstances of repression and consequential underemployment to ever achieve Maslow’s physiological needs, let alone self-actualization. As Michel Foucault and others have noted, power relations are present in all aspects of modern discourse, including governance. Law, education, and especially the criminal justice system legitimize this state power. The only means of relieving these harms of reduction and repression is when systemic “power must be de-stabilized by way of deconstruction.” In other words, the reasons for harmless offense and disparate sentences must be deconstructed and revealed; only then can an ethical and equitable systems of justice develop. The current ethical quagmire is that criminal justice practice may actually create and perpetuate harms.


  1. Arrigo, Bruce and Heather Bersot. “Postmodern Criminology.” In Springer Criminology Encyclopedia. New York: Sage, 2013.
  2. Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of a Prison. Harmondsworth, UK: Allen Lane, 1977.
  3. Henry, Stuart and Mark M. Lanier. “The Prism of Crime: The Arguments for an Integrated Definition of Crime.” Justice Quarterly, v.15/4 (1998).
  4. Henry, Stuart and Dragan Milovanovic. “The Constitution of Constitutive Criminology: A Postmodern Approach to the Criminological Theory.” In The Futures of Criminology, D. Nelken, ed. London: Sage, 1994.
  5. Lanier, Mark M. and Stuart Henry. Essential Criminology. 3rd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010.
  6. Maslow, Abraham. Motivation and Personality. New York: Harper, 1954.
  7. Maslow, Abraham. “A Theory of Human Motivation.” Psychological Review, v.50/4 (1943).
  8. Milovanovic, Dragan and Stuart Henry. “Constitutive Definition of Crime: Power as Harm.” In What Is Crime? Controversies Over the Nature of Crime and What to Do About It, S. Henry and M. Lanier, eds. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001.
  9. Pavarini, Massimo. “Is Criminology Worth Saving?” In The Futures of Criminology, D. Nelken, ed. London: Sage, 1994.
  10. Schwendinger, Herman, and Julia Schwendinger. “Defenders of Order or Guardians of Human Rights?” Issues in Criminology, v.5 (1970).
  11. Tifft, Larry L. “Social Harm Definitions of Crime.” Critical Criminologist, v.7 (1995).
  12. Yoon, Young-Hee, F. Stinson, H. Yi, and M. Dufour. “Accidental Alcohol Poisoning Mortality in the United States, 1996–1998.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, National Institute of Health (1998). http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh27-1/110-120.htm (Accessed September 2013).

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