Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys

By Hefner, M. Kristen | Law & Society Review, December 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys


Hefner, M. Kristen, Law & Society Review


Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys. By Victor M. Rios. New York: New York University Press, 2011. 218 pp. $20.00 paper.

Punitive strategies such as "tough on crime" and "zero tolerance" policies that have traditionally been restricted to the field of criminal justice are currently being implemented in mainstream institutions that serve youthful populations, such as schools and civic centers. While examinations of punitive discourses and practices, poverty, and youth crime are widely documented within the current sociological, criminological, and legal literature, studies often fail to take into account the lived experiences of the youth themselves. Through life history interviews and observations, Victor Rios's book, Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys, provides a voice for marginalized young men in Oakland and elucidates the processes through which these young men are shrouded in a culture of punishment that shapes their life experiences and trajectories. Moreover, Rios's work is a timely contribution given the current social and political debates regarding punitive policies.

Rios's study demonstrates how criminalization, as a systemic form of punitive social control, is a dominant and omnipresent phenomenon in the lives of young males in Oakland that systematically governs and limits their life choices and trajectories. Within this community, young men of color are marginalized through constant surveillance, harassment, and discipline. Rios refers to this phenomenon as the "youth control complex" in which young people's everyday behaviors are perceived and responded to as criminal by mainstream social actors.

Rios argues that while criminalization is often portrayed as a mechanism to protect certain populations, such as increasing prison sentences to seemingly protect victims from violent criminals, its social and political utility becomes visible when examining the consequences of criminalizing young men of color. While many youth reactions to the "youth control complex" in Rios's study are perceived as negative, such as resisting mainstream institutions by establishing youth subcultures and creating hypermasculine behaviors, others are positive. For example, by resisting the system, some young men created a sense of self-respect and empowerment in their own lives that was often denied by institutional authority figures. As a result, some of the boys were capable of engaging in critical analyses of the systematic oppression they encounter within their own communities. Thus, while many acts of resistance by the boys were perceived as illogical by mainstream standards, they often played a functional role in the boys' personal responses to the omnipresent punitive strategies they encountered in their everyday lives. …

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