Book Review: Delisi, M. (2005). Career Criminals in Society. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. pp. 196

AuthorJeffery T. Ulmer
Published date01 March 2008
Date01 March 2008
Subject MatterArticles
Delisi, M. (2005). Career Criminals in Society.
Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. pp. 196.
DOI: 10.1177/0734016808314553
“In a way, the crime problem in a society is the career criminal problem because about
5% of the offenders account for more than half of the total crime and delinquency affecting
the population” (p. 173). This is the major premise of Matt Delisi’s Criminal Careers in
Society, which attacks the issue of persistent, dangerous criminals from a self-identified
conservative ideological perspective. That is, Delisi presents the book as a conservative
counterweight to much of academic criminology, which he characterizes as liberal-leaning
at least its implications, and often in its explicit stances.
His focus is particularly on those offenders who exhibit strong tendencies toward anti-
social and violent behavior from childhood or adolescence onward. Since these offenders
create so much havoc, “social control efforts should almost entirely focus on them” (p. 6).
Delisi first describes, with illustrative narratives and sample criminal records as examples,
the dynamics and parameters of the kind of criminal careers he is talking about. In two later
chapters, he categorizes relevant theories on criminal careers into developmental theories
(e.g., social bonding/control theory, social learning/differential association theory, Moffitt’s
developmental theory, and others) and propensity theories (J. Q. Wilson’s discussions of
crime and human nature, Gottfredson and Hirschi’s self-control theory), noting the strengths
and drawbacks of each in empirically addressing career criminals. Next, Delisi discusses
“the politics of career criminals,” and this chapter contains the polemical and policy heart
of the book. Here and in the concluding chapter, his main argument is that for a variety of
reasons, the “disorganized and lenient” (p. 136) criminal justice system does a generally poor
job of dealing with career criminals, and society does a poor job of investing in prevention
of the processes by which criminal careers develop, and of identifying and incapacitating
career criminals. He is not an uncritical enthusiast of selective incapacitation strategies,
however, noting that the prediction of criminal careers is very difficult, and current crimi-
nological tools are not up to the task. However, he notes that society cannot afford to wait
around for criminology to achieve the ability to prospectively identify career criminals with
great accuracy, if that is even humanly possible. Delisi also calls for much greater efforts
to incapacitate career criminals through longer (perhaps lifetime) periods of incarceration
for proven violent career criminals, and muses about the possible efficacy of more wide-
spread use of the death penalty for such offenders. Such a strategy, he argues, would neces-
sitate the state taking over the function of the well-known Innocence Project, using DNA
evidence routinely to guard against wrongful execution.
In my view, this is the most evidence-based, theoretically sophisticated, and least arrogant
conservative statement on criminology that one is going to find. Despite the conservative
rhetoric, what Delisi ends up doing is attempting to find a middle ground between his two
categorizations of theory (developmental and propensity), and indirectly, Left and Right.
He argues that conservative policy makers and criminal justice officials should embrace and
invest in specific efforts to prevent the processes by which career criminals develop in the
first place (he emphasizes primarily child and adolescent development processes). In turn,
liberal-leaning academics should recognize the human costs and harm done by career criminals,
accept the notion from propensity theories that some criminals have always been “bad” and
remain irredeemable, and stop implicitly apologizing for or sympathizing with them.
Book Reviews 103

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