The Power to Criminalize

Violence, Inequality and Law

By Gillian Balfour and Elizabeth Comack  

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Law’s power to criminalize–to turn a person into a criminal–is formidable. Traditional legal doctrine argues that law dispenses justice in an impartial and unbiased fashion. Critical legal theorists claim that law reproduces gender, race and class inequalities. The Power to Criminalize offers an analysis that acknowledges the tensions between these two views of law. Drawing from crown attorneys’ files on violent crime cases and interviews with defence lawyers, the authors reveal the complex ways in which discourses of masculinity, femininity, race, class and social space inform the strategies used to litigate these cases. This analysis raises questions about the prospects of challenging law to realize a more just society.

“An impressive study … first rate empirical research combined with superb theoretical analysis. Comack and Balfour show exactly how–and more importantly why–law reforms so often and so faithfully reproduce the class, race and gender inequalities they were meant to remedy.”

— Laureen Snider, Department of Sociology, Queen’s University

“An elegantly crafted and thoroughly original book, The Power to Criminalize unravels the criminalizing process that perpetuates the subordination of women, Aboriginal people and the poor while ostensibly upholding law’s commitment to equality and justice … Another demonstration that the field of critical criminology is very much alive and thriving in this country.”

— Bob Menzies, School of Criminology, Simon Fraser University


  • Introduction
  • Theorizing Law
  • Gendering Violent Crime
  • Racializing Violent Crime
  • “Whacking The Complainant”: Law and Sexual Assault
  • Lawyering Under Zero-Tolerance
  • Conclusion
  • Appendix


  • Gillian Balfour

    Trent University

    Gillian Balfour is Associate professor in the Department of Sociology at Trent University.

    Gillian recently completed a PhD in sociology at the University of Manitoba where she examined the role of lawyers in the criminalization of men and women accused of violent crimes. Her PhD research examined the practice of law as a social act that is constrained and enabled by socio-political interests of “law and order,” professional codes of conduct, and the identities of victims and offenders and the meaning of violence that are encoded with stereotypes of whiteness, Indianness, dangerousness, poverty, heterosexuality, femininity and masculinity.

    Her research interests include law reforms in the areas of domestic and sexual violence, women, crime and social justice, feminist criminology and Aboriginal peoples in the criminal justice system. Gillian teaches Sociology of Law, Feminist Criminology and Introductory Sociology.

  • Elizabeth Comack

    University of Manitoba

    Elizabeth Comack is a Distinguished Professor Emerita in the Department of Sociology and Criminology at the University of Manitoba. Over the past four decades she has written and conducted research on a variety of social justice topics. Her most recent book is Coming Back to Jail: Women, Trauma, and Criminalization. Elizabeth’s current research projects stem from her involvement in the Manitoba Research Alliance, a large consortium of academics and community partners engaged in SSHRC-funded research that addresses poverty in Indigenous and inner-city communities, and with Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada, which is conducting a project entitled “Meeting Survivors’ Needs: Gender-Based Violence and the Criminal Justice System in Inuit Nunangat.”

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