Thinking about Crime: Sense and Sensibility in American Penal Culture

Thinking about Crime: Sense and Sensibility in American Penal Culture

Thinking about Crime: Sense and Sensibility in American Penal Culture

Thinking about Crime: Sense and Sensibility in American Penal Culture


Crime is an American preoccupation. Campaigns such as "the war on drugs," zero tolerance policing, and three strikes and you're out--not to mention the ever-shrill coverage of crime stories-all suggest a perpetually outraged nation determined to keep its criminal element at bay, no matter the cost. But is this really what average Americans think about crime and crime control measures? Or is the "no holds barred" approach merely another oscillation in an ongoing cycle of intolerance and tolerance in American thinking? Have prevailing but short-lived sensibilities on crime overruled our common sense? In this wide-ranging analysis, Michael Tonry argues that those responsible for crafting America's criminal justice policy have lost their way in a forest of good intentions, political cynicism, and public anxieties. American crime control politics over time have created a punishment system no one would knowingly have chosen yet one that no one seems able to change. Fueled by knee-jerk rhetoric and moral panics, the current crime control regime is founded on short-term thinking and the personal ambitions of politicians terrified of appearing "soft on crime," rather than on policies that work. Tonry demonstrates that attitudes toward crime in America are cyclical. Prevailing sensibilities rather than timeless truths govern the American war on crime, resulting in policies both wasteful and harsh. U.S. crime trends closely resemble those of other nations, yet American policies are very different. The evolution of the war on drugs is an example; sentencing grew steadily harsher long after the drug problem itself eased. Seamlessly blending history with an easy presentation of day-to-day realities and empirical evidence, Tonry proposes tangible, specific solutions that can serve as a platform for criminal justice reform. A spirited manifesto rooted in a lifetime of crime expertise, Tonry's book calls on politician and policymakers to choose the right path, not the easy or politically expedient one. We know how to create an effective and humane criminal justice system. Now we must have the courage to do so, by abandoning the current status quo, which is both costly and cruel in favor of practices that will move America closer to the mainstream of contemporary Western values.


From capital punishment to three-strikes-and-you're-out to the highest imprisonment rates in the Western world by a factor of five, the United States stands alone in what it does to its citizens to prevent crimes and punish criminals.

There are good reasons to doubt that recent punishment policies have had much to do with recent drops in crime. The strongest is that crime trends for the past 40 years have been broadly similar in every Western country, and in every American state, while punishment policies and practices have varied enormously.

The United States has a punishment system that no one would knowingly have built from the ground up. It is often unjust, it is unduly severe, it is wasteful, and it does enormous damage to the lives of black Americans.

This book explains how contemporary American crime policies came to be as they are, and how they can be reconfigured to be made more effective but less costly, and to do less harm to offenders, their loved and loving ones, and their communities. The story is partly about rising crime rates and public fears, about cynical politics and pusillanimous politicians, and about public opinion and sensationalizing media. The story more importantly is about the ways longterm trends in values and attitudes influence how Americans think about crime and punishment, and how they think about victims and offenders.

Social scientists use the word “sensibilities” to refer to prevailing social values, attitudes, and beliefs. Sensibilities change . . .

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