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The Punishment Imperative

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

Todd R. Clear
Natasha A. Frost
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 269
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  • Book Info
    The Punishment Imperative
    Book Description:

    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 expose 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 CincinnatiOver 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. InThe 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 Imperativecharts 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 Imperativecautions 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 Imperativeis 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 and Public Policy.

    eISBN: 978-1-4798-2902-6
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. 1 The Beginning of the End of the Punishment Imperative
    (pp. 1-16)

    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.² 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...

  5. 2 The Contours of Mass Incarceration
    (pp. 17-46)

    As the United States’ prison and jail population approached, and then, in midyear 2002, exceeded the two million mark for the first time,¹ commentators—both expert and otherwise—no longer found it sufficient to refer to incarceration in the United States as simply incarceration: incarceration became mass incarceration. How else could one convey the enormity of the size of the America’s incarcerated population? More than one in one hundred Americans were behind bars,² and, at the beginning of the new millennium, 5.6 million Americans had served time in prison.³ At these rates, almost 7 percent of the U.S. population could...

  6. 3 The Punishment Imperative as a Grand Social Experiment
    (pp. 47-70)

    In the previous chapter we reviewed some of the major trends in prison population growth over the past several decades and introduced some of the most influential explanations for that growth. We showed that the growth of punishment—especially imprisonment—over the last forty years has been unprecedented in U.S. history and outstrips other nations’ experiences. We have made the case that this shift in U.S. policy for the most part came about not as a consequence of changes in rates of crime but rather as a consequence of changes in our orientation to crime and in the policies that...

  7. 4 The Policies of the Punishment Imperative
    (pp. 71-112)

    When the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice (hereafter 1967 Crime Commission) convened by President Lyndon B. Johnson released its report,The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society, in 1967, the influence of the Great Society ideas and ideals was still very evident. In the summary that preceded the lengthy report, the 1967 Crime Commission offered three overarching recommendations. The very first recommendation emphasized attention to the root causes of crime:

    The Commission finds, first, that America must translate its well-founded alarm about crime into social action that will prevent crime. It has no doubt whatever...

  8. 5 Two Views on the Objectives of the Punishment Imperative
    (pp. 113-136)

    We have argued that the Punishment Imperative should be thought of as a “grand social experiment,” and we are not alone in using this term. Increasingly, scholars make reference to a “policy experiment” or an “experiment in mass incarceration.”¹ Without being as explicit, these scholars recognize what we have said in chapter 4, that the forty-year vast increase in the size of the penal system, especially the prison population, has many of the markings of the kind of social experiment that is characteristic of American social reform movements.

    It is tempting to think of the punitive agenda as a cynical...

  9. 6 Assessing the Punishment Imperative
    (pp. 137-158)

    Now that we are close to forty years into the grand social experiment in punishment, and especially if (as we believe) it is coming to an end, we should be able to draw some conclusions and extract some lessons learned from it. In the previous chapter, we argued that there were both manifest and latent objectives for the Punishment Imperative—and critiqued the experiment in terms of those objectives. Here we ask what can be said of the overall experiment. We would argue that at least four general conclusions can be drawn: (1) the incarceration rate has been demonstrated to...

  10. 7 Dismantling the Punishment Imperative
    (pp. 159-188)

    In our opening chapter, we argued that the Punishment Imperative, dominant for more than a generation, has now run its course. If we are right, then we are still in the very earliest days of this change. Yet if we are right, it will be because an uncoordinated set of forces distributed around the country has reached an unofficial conclusion that the time has come to deescalate the penal system. There are certainly many people making this argument today—on the left, on the right, and in the center. For reasons that often differ, today’s debates have much less to...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 189-230)
    (pp. 231-252)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 253-257)
    (pp. 258-258)