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Forging a Punishing State: The Punitive Turn in U.S. Criminal and Social Policy

General Programming

dateNovember 11, 2010 timeThursday, 12:15pm EST location The Heyman Center, Columbia University

In 1976, California state lawmakers abolished the central pillar of penal practice, the indeterminate sentence, and passed the nation’s first major determinate (or fixed) sentencing law. Under the old system, inmates were not released until a parole board deemed them sufficiently rehabilitated. The new legislation proclaimed punishment as the primary purpose of incarceration and formally abandoned the “rehabilitative ideal”—the notion that prisons should produce citizens and facilitate their reintegration into society.

Julilly Kohler-Hausmann traced how discrediting the rehabilitative ideal eventually led to the ascendancy of mandatory sentencing regimes, the phenomenal growth in carceral institutions, and a particular notion of appropriate state functions and character. She examined the central role prisoners played in undermining the therapeutic rationale for incarceration, which they felt was at the heart of the hypocrisy and oppression of penal practice. Just as prisoners were gaining new voice and authority in these debates, however, the political terrain shifted dramatically. Fear of crime escalated, law-and-order politics triumphed, and inmates quickly lost their foothold in public discourse. Instead of fostering further integration of prisoners into debates about penal practices, lawmakers enacted more policies that fortified the rhetorical, physical, and legal isolation of convicts from civil society. These debates were part of a profound renegotiation of the state’s basic responsibilities to its law-abiding and criminal citizens: who should be held accountable for social problems; whom the state ultimately served; and who merited full rights and belonging in society.

  • Julilly Kohler-Hausmann Assistant Professor Cornell University