The Collapse of American Criminal Justice

Harvard University Press
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Rule of law has vanished in America’s criminal justice system. Prosecutors decide whom to punish; most accused never face a jury; policing is inconsistent; plea bargaining is rampant; and draconian sentencing fills prisons with mostly minority defendants. A leading criminal law scholar looks to history for the roots of these problems—and solutions.
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Harvard University Press
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Published on
Nov 29, 2011
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Law / Criminal Law / General
Law / Criminal Procedure
Law / Judicial Power
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Over the last thirty years, the prison population in the United States has increased more than seven-fold to over two million people, including vastly disproportionate numbers of minorities and people with little education. For some racial and educational groups, incarceration has become a depressingly regular experience, and prison culture and influence pervade their communities. Almost 60 percent of black male high school drop-outs in their early thirties have spent time in prison. In Punishment and Inequality in America, sociologist Bruce Western explores the recent era of mass incarceration and the serious social and economic consequences it has wrought.

Punishment and Inequality in America dispels many of the myths about the relationships among crime, imprisonment, and inequality. While many people support the increase in incarceration because of recent reductions in crime, Western shows that the decrease in crime rates in the 1990s was mostly fueled by growth in city police forces and the pacification of the drug trade. Getting “tough on crime” with longer sentences only explains about 10 percent of the fall in crime, but has come at a significant cost. Punishment and Inequality in America reveals a strong relationship between incarceration and severely dampened economic prospects for former inmates. Western finds that because of their involvement in the penal system, young black men hardly benefited from the economic boom of the 1990s. Those who spent time in prison had much lower wages and employment rates than did similar men without criminal records. The losses from mass incarceration spread to the social sphere as well, leaving one out of ten young black children with a father behind bars by the end of the 1990s, thereby helping perpetuate the damaging cycle of broken families, poverty, and crime.

The recent explosion of imprisonment is exacting heavy costs on American society and exacerbating inequality. Whereas college or the military were once the formative institutions in young men’s lives, prison has increasingly usurped that role in many communities. Punishment and Inequality in America profiles how the growth in incarceration came about and the toll it is taking on the social and economic fabric of many American communities.

Across America today gated communities sprawl out from urban centers, employers enforce mandatory drug testing, and schools screen students with metal detectors. Social problems ranging from welfare dependency to educational inequality have been reconceptualized as crimes, with an attendant focus on assigning fault and imposing consequences. Even before the recent terrorist attacks, non-citizen residents had become subject to an increasingly harsh regime of detention and deportation, and prospective employees subjected to background checks. How and when did our everyday world become dominated by fear, every citizen treated as a potential criminal? In this startlingly original work, Jonathan Simon traces this pattern back to the collapse of the New Deal approach to governing during the 1960s when declining confidence in expert-guided government policies sent political leaders searching for new models of governance. The War on Crime offered a ready solution to their problem: politicians set agendas by drawing analogies to crime and redefined the ideal citizen as a crime victim, one whose vulnerabilities opened the door to overweening government intervention. By the 1980s, this transformation of the core powers of government had spilled over into the institutions that govern daily life. Soon our schools, our families, our workplaces, and our residential communities were being governed through crime. This powerful work concludes with a call for passive citizens to become engaged partners in the management of risk and the treatment of social ills. Only by coming together to produce security, can we free ourselves from a logic of domination by others, and from the fear that currently rules our everyday life.
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