The Punishment Imperative: The Rise and Failure of Mass Incarceration in America

The Punishment Imperative: The Rise and Failure of Mass Incarceration in America

The Punishment Imperative: The Rise and Failure of Mass Incarceration in America

The Punishment Imperative: The Rise and Failure of Mass Incarceration in America

Synopsis

"Backed up by the best science, Todd Clear and Natasha Frost make a compelling case for why the nation's forty-year embrace of the punitive spirit has been morally bankrupt and endangered public safety. But this is far more than an exposé of correctional failure. Recognizing that a policy turning point is at hand, Clear and Frost provide a practical blueprint for choosing a different correctional future- counsel that is wise and should be widely followed."- Francis T. Cullen, Distinguished Research Professor of Criminal Justice, University of Cincinnati. Over the last 35 years, the US penal system has grown at a rate unprecedented in US history- five times larger than in the past and grossly out of scale with the rest of the world. This growth was part of a sustained and intentional effort to "get tough" on crime, and characterizes a time when no policy options were acceptable save for those that increased penalties. In The Punishment Imperative, eminent criminologists Todd R. Clear and Natasha A. Frost argue that America's move to mass incarceration from the 1960s to the early 2000s was more than just a response to crime or a collection of policies adopted in isolation; it was a grand social experiment. Tracing a wide array of trends related to the criminal justice system, The Punishment Imperative charts the rise of penal severity in America and speculates that a variety of forces- fiscal, political, and evidentiary- have finally come together to bring this great social experiment to an end. Clear and Frost stress that while the doubling of the crime rate in the late 1960s represented one of the most pressing social problems at the time, this is not what served as a foundation for the great punishment experiment. Rather, it was the way crime posed a political problem- and thereby offered a political opportunity- that became the basis for the great rise in punishment. The authors claim that the punishment imperativeis a particularly insidious social experiment because the actual goal was never articulated, the full array of consequences was never considered, and the momentum built even as the forces driving the policy shifts diminished. Clear and Frost argue that the public's growing realization that the severe policies themselves, not growing crime rates, were the main cause of increased incarceration eventually led to a surge of interest in taking a more rehabilitative, pragmatic, and cooperative approach to dealing with criminal offenders. The Punishment Imperative cautions that the legacy of the grand experiment of the past forty years will be difficult to escape. However, the authors suggest that the United States now stands at the threshold of a new era in penal policy, and they offer several practical and pragmatic policy solutions to changing the criminal justice system's approach to punishment. Part historical study, part forward-looking policy analysis, The Punishment Imperative is a compelling study of a generation of crime and punishment in America. Todd R. Clear is Dean of the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University. He is the author of Imprisoning Communities and What Is Community Justice? and the founding editor of the journal Criminology & Public Policy.

Excerpt

America’s criminal justice system has deteriorated to the point that it is a
national disgrace. Its irregularities and inequities cut against the notion
that we are a society founded on fundamental fairness. Our failure to
address this problem has caused the nation’s prisons to burst their seams
with massive overcrowding, even as our neighborhoods have become
more dangerous. We are wasting billions of dollars and diminishing mil
lions of lives.

—Senator Jim Webb, March 3, 2009

In the early 1970s, the United States embarked on a subtle change in the way it punished people for crimes. The prison population, stable for half a century, shifted upward. At first, this was little noticed, so much so that even as the number of people behind bars was inching upward, prominent criminologists were hypothesizing that there was an underlying stability to the use of imprisonment across the United States. By the end of that decade, the change was no longer subtle, and commentators began to describe a new harshness in the U.S. attitude toward crime and justice.

In the next chapter, we tell the story of the special character of American punitiveness. It is an extraordinary story of remarkable raw numbers that are all the more astonishing for the way we have gotten used to them. As we shall show, nowhere else in the democratic world, and at no other time in Western history, has there been the kind of relentless punitive spirit as has been ascendant in the United States for more than a generation. That relentless punitive spirit is the philosophy—the . . .

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