Academic journal article Social Justice

A Radical Need for Criminology

Academic journal article Social Justice

A Radical Need for Criminology

Article excerpt

Our reality was not supposed to be this future --(signed) the 70s (1)

Introduction: A Basic Course in Time Travel

IN THE FALL OF 2012, I JOINED WITH TONY PLATT AND NEARLY 30 UC BERKELEY AND San Jose State University graduate students in a course aimed at the intellectual equivalent of time travel. In my eyes, our mission seemed straightforward enough. (2) Mass incarceration, a term scholars of punishment and society use to describe the great paroxysm of incarcerating people for criminal offenses in prisons and jails, which saw the US prison population (relative to population growth) more than quadruple between the mid-1970s and the end of the 2000s, today shows signs of subsiding, with imprisonment rates down throughout the nation and dramatically in some states. (3) However, the damage done to future generations from incarcerating an unprecedented number of Americans, especially from communities already disadvantaged by economic marginalization and legacies of racial discrimination, will require sustained demand from grassroots activists and sustained attention from legal elites. (4)

It will also require new ideas, untainted by the beliefs that have underpinned mass incarceration. Unless something is done to address the dominant criminological ideas of the past generation, we are likely to remain in a sort of "mass incarceration lite," with an imprisonment rate two to three times the historic norm. Many Americans who have been reliable supporters of "tough on crime" measures in the past are beginning to reject prison for drug offenders, women convicted of non violent crimes, and many technical parole violators caught up in the web of incarceration-favoring laws enacted during the 1980s and 1990s. However, the appeal of incarcerating people involved in "violent, "serious," and "sexual" crimes remains very strong (and all three represent very broad categories, historically influenced by the racialization of violence). If we want to achieve significant reductions in incarceration rates, we face a radical need for a criminology untainted by the catastrophe we have gone through--that is, for an updated and accurate knowledge about what crimes are being committed, what harms are being done, by whom and against whom, and how the state and community can make amends to those harmed and prevent others from being harmed.

This is where I saw the value of a targeted time-travel mission. The criminological ideas in contemporary America are as tainted as the criminal justice policies they have grown up with and helped to determine (Feeley and Simon 1992). To go forward, we must look back. Along with tens of thousands of individuals, mass incarceration also swept away a landscape of criminological ideas and projects that, as of the late 1970s, was a thriving field of intense intellectual competition, largely between "liberal" and "radical" approaches. (5) In this recent, but now invisible past (much of it played out in the remarkably productive environment of UC Berkeley's School of Criminology), liberal and radical criminologists collaborated in researching the potential for empowering poor communities to fight crime. Crucially, they were focusing on the same communities that would become the epicenters of mass incarceration (Drucker 2011).

Whereas liberal and radical criminologists shared a commitment to social justice (especially in terms of civil rights), political arguments loomed over whether American democracy was capable of overcoming the legacies of racism and internal colonialism to address the sources of the astounding increase in street crime, especially armed robberies, murders, and rapes. (6) These political differences would be driven farther apart by the US escalation of the war in Vietnam and the repression of the growing peace and social justice movements at home. It is Vietnam, more than theory, that truly accounts for the boundaries between radical and liberal criminology in that era. …

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