Perspectives on Punishment:
An Interdisciplinary Roundtable on Punitiveness in America
Much has been said in the past few years about the extraordinarily high rates of incarceration in the United States. With over 2.2 million individuals behind bars and an additional 7 million citizens under some form of correctional supervision, America has earned the dubious distinction of being the world’s leader in incarceration. While many scholars, practitioners, legislators, and politicians are now debating the extent to which this costly habit should be continued, less discussion has focused on the causes and drivers of America’s unusual preference for harsh punitive measures that eventually resulted in these staggering numbers.
For the past four decades, following the start of the build-up in incarceration rates in the early 1970s, at virtually every point of contact with individuals charged with crimes, as a country, American policymakers have chosen to respond with harsh punishments rather than alternatives. This has become manifest in all aspects of the criminal justice system – at the front end through more aggressive policing practices, in the court system with fewer diversion programs or alternatives to prosecution, during the period of confinement as the nation’s jails and prisons have become more crowded and the experience of incarceration more punitive, and at the back end of the system where the conditions of supervision have become more oriented toward surveillance and monitoring and less oriented toward supportive services and reintegration.
This new era of harsh punishment has extended to life after formal punishment ends, as social services, benefits, and the rights and privileges of citizenship have been restricted through a network of collateral sanctions. Yet the most prominent feature of this era of retributive justice can be found in the way the United States decides to sentence offenders. Three-strikes laws, life-without-parole statutes, truth-in-sentencing schemes, and mandatory minimums are examples that reflect an increased tendency to use extreme punishment in the United States. The sharp reductions in parole releases, the harsh punishments for drug offenses, and the explosion in federal criminal statutes since 1980 are additional examples reflecting an increased punitive attitude. Moreover, America remains the only Western democracy to sentence people to death.
The increase in punitiveness has not been experienced uniformly across American society. The burden of punishment has fallen disproportionately on poor men of color with limited education, high rates of unemployment, health challenges, and troubled lives. This form of “American exceptionalism” is exceptional in troubling ways, with uniquely harsh and damaging consequences to individuals, families, communities, and the American ideal of a fair, democratic, and multicultural society.
We believe that now is the time to question and reevaluate our punishment policies. To do so we must ask four fundamental questions:
- At the most basic level, what motivates individuals, cultures, and institutions to punish?
- By what mechanisms can we explain the exceptionalism of American punitiveness? That is, why does America differ from other Western countries in its approach to punishment?
- Can the pattern of this “American penal exceptionalism” be altered through changes in criminal justice and punishment policy?
- If so, how might this be accomplished? What practical and proven methods are most effective in influencing American penal policy?
Political calculations and fears of being portrayed as “soft on crime” or excessively “lenient” have contributed heavily to the current, excessively punitive culture in the United States. The reach of American punitiveness not only extends to the back- and deep-end criminal justice realms of sentencing and mass incarceration, but also to a range of lower-level, front-end disciplinary and law enforcement policies, all of which tend to impact already vulnerable populations with particular force. From the above mentioned mandatory minimum sentences like three-strikes laws on one end of the disciplinary continuum to repressive, short-sighted school suspension and expulsion policies on the other, American punishment has been shaped for decades by an acute sense of risk aversion. Harsh treatment of criminal offenders and other rule breakers has become a default response, the safest approach for many policymakers, at least since Willie Horton became a household name during the 1988 presidential campaign.
Yet, for the first time in a generation, there are clear signs that a change of course in American penal policy is underway. These signs manifest in the ways that a growing number of states are working to utilize imprisonment less often and for fewer offenders; in the rhetoric of an increasing number of conservative lawmakers who cite fiscal as well as moral justifications for rethinking tough-on-crime approaches; in the fact, demonstrated in a number of states, that crime and prison populations can decline simultaneously; in a range of new federal legislation aiming to curtail the use of excessive punishment and to ameliorate the long-term effects of incarceration; and even in the Obama administration’s recently issued guidelines for schools to minimize the deleterious effects of the zero-tolerance policies championed so fervently just a decade ago. Together, these developments have opened a window of opportunity to reassess how Americans think about and use punitive measures.
In order to exploit this window of opportunity, we need to develop a broad, empirically based understanding of the forces at work, using an equally broad range of methodologies. This project must also be international in scope. For one thing, signs of change in how we punish in the United States are mirrored in other countries, like the United Kingdom, where a “rehabilitation revolution” was recently championed by the conservative-led coalition government. Meanwhile, the Nordic countries continue to maintain imprisonment rates that are, on average, one-tenth those of the United States. Many popular criminological explanations for changes in American crime and criminal justice tend to be problematically parochial. Other countries, for instance, have seen sharp, long-term declines in crime; so our explanations for the American decline must not rest entirely on homegrown causes. The same applies to explanations for changes in the frequency and severity of criminal punishment over time. International, comparative research on penal policies and outcomes has grown in the past decade, but much more is needed to understand the forces that increase punishment levels and to identify those mechanisms that can help to reduce them.
The emerging signs that a shift is occurring in the American penal climate indicate that the time is ripe for a sustained, interdisciplinary exploration of just what it is that explains the harshness of much of American policy, and how progress might be made to reduce undue reliance upon punitive and repressive criminal and disciplinary policies. For this reason we convene a two-day conference – called the Interdisciplinary Roundtable on Punitiveness in America – at John Jay College on April 2nd and 3rd, 2015 to discuss the problem of American punitiveness, drawing on scholarly expertise from an unprecedentedly broad array of perspectives. This group includes 35 renowned scholars of sociology, criminology, law, psychology, economics & methodology, political science, history & race relations, philosophy, theology, journalism & communications, and anthropology. This will not be merely a scholarly exercise, however. Our aim is to include experienced policymakers and practitioners as well in order to harness the expertise required to make real and significant changes in policy going forward. Our interdisciplinary team will be the first of its kind to offer the broad scope required to examine such a multifaceted set of problems.
American punitiveness has received much scholarly attention in recent years, but little of it from an interdisciplinary perspective. The questions of why we punish and why some countries punish more or less harshly than others are inherently complex. Scholars who pursue these questions may be situated within different academic disciplines, draw on different theories, and employ widely different methodologies. The result is a disjointed field of inquiry, where research goes on in disciplinary silos and little cross-pollination of ideas occurs.
Two examples might suffice to illustrate the shortcomings of an insufficiently broad point of view. First, though the United States is a highly religious nation, criminologists rarely consider the deep theological origins of Americans’ complex penal history and the attendant tensions between our impulse for retribution and our calling for mercy and forgiveness. Second, a range of social psychological concepts and processes are useful for modeling punitive attitudes and behaviors at the individual, micro level. These literatures demonstrate a number of mechanisms at work that conduce toward behavioral and attitudinal outcomes that might be described as punitive in nature. These include theories of worldview defense, terror management theory, system justification theory, right-wing authoritarianism, and social dominance orientation. Yet, surprisingly, the criminological literatures on punitive attitudes in general, and on “American penal exceptionalism” in particular, are nearly devoid of references to these mechanisms.
In sum, few researchers have attempted to study punitiveness either from a multidisciplinary perspective or from a vantage point that would allow an ascending linkage between micro-level processes at the individual level and punitive effects, and between the relatively harsh cultural sensibilities in a country or jurisdiction and the relative harshness of its penal policies and practices. The Roundtable – and the line of sustained inquiry that might follow – will serve to bring cohesion to the study of American punitiveness by tracing its path from the micro to macro levels – from individual attitudes and behaviors, up through to jurisdictional culture and to public policy.
The Roundtable will be a first step toward better understanding the nature of American punitiveness and to develop effective strategies to militate against it. It will begin to bridge the gap between disciplines that study punishment, and to approach the question of what compels people, cultures, and institutions to punish, using the full scope of theories and methods available in the various fields. The central purpose of the Roundtable will be to discuss the best methodologies to approach these questions, and to develop a long-term, programmatic research plan that includes an international, comparative component and a proactive communication strategy for the rapid dissemination of information to engage a wide audience. The ultimate goal of the research plan is policy-oriented; that is, it aims to shift the current pattern of American penal exceptionalism.
The Interdisciplinary Roundtable on Punitiveness in America has the potential to lay the intellectual foundation for a profound shift in American attitudes toward punishment. The first step is the convening of this small group of distinguished scholars for a two day meeting to explore this intellectual terrain and discuss the feasibility of a long-term project on this important topic. A key question will be the potential for such an interdisciplinary exploration to shift American culture and politics. We are excited that this project could be launched so that American policy can begin the long journey toward a less punitive response to crime.