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July 7, 2008

Examining the political dimensions of mass incarceration

Though not available for free on-line, this piece by political scientist Marie Gottschalk ­seems especially timely as we move into the later phases of a major election year. The piece is titled "Hiding in Plain Sight: American Politics and the Carceral State," and here is the abstract:

Over the past three decades, the United States has built a carceral state that is unprecedented among Western countries and in US history.  The emergence and consolidation of the US carceral state are a major milestone in American political development.  The explosive growth of the prison population and the retributive turn in US penal policy are well documented.  But the political causes and consequences of this massive expansion are not well understood. This is starting to change. During the past decade or so, scholars in criminology, sociology, and law, recently joined by a few political scientists, have produced outstanding works on the connection between politics and the origins of the carceral state.  Recently, the wider political consequences and analytical implications of the carceral state are a new and expanding area of interest.  The carceral state has grown so huge that it has begun to transform fundamental democratic institutions, from free and fair elections to an accurate and representative census.  The findings of scholars of the carceral state prompt us to rethink claims about issues in the study of American politics that may seem far afield from criminal justice, including voter turnout and the “vanishing voter,” the achievements of the US model of neoliberal economic development in the 1990s, and the triumph of the modern Republican Party in national politics.  Scholarship on the carceral state also raises other important issues about power and resistance for marginalized and stigmatized groups.

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July 7, 2008 at 09:11 AM | Permalink


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Tracked on Jul 10, 2008 2:02:24 PM


It's become increasingly obvious that politicians seek to throw people in jail so that claims of being "tough on crime" can be thrown out at election time. However, this violates not only the rights of those innocents thrown into jail, but the rights of a free society. Criminal attorneys on both sides of this issue recognize the hypocrisy of such actions, and yet public pressure squeezes more and more individuals into jail without much reason.

Posted by: JT | Jul 7, 2008 11:24:01 AM

I think that incarceration is overused but I also think the term "carceral state" is a stretch.

The term "wrongful incarceration" is associated with "wrongful conviction" but it could also be the result of a fouled up sentence or revocation. There would have to be a horrendous foul up rate to account for the growth in the prison population by wrongful incarceration.

The term "over-incarceration" suggests the sentence was too harsh for the particular offense or there is an unfair restriction on eligibility for parole. This is process is thought to be the most likely cause of rapid growth in the prison population.

The term "unnecessary incarceration" appears to be associated with pretrial detention of adults and juveniles but it may also be applied to the use of jail in place of medical detention for mentally ill persons. In the case of detention of the mentally ill I would rather see that called "inappropriate detention".

The voters have told the legislators they want violent criminals, sex offenders, drug traffickers and drunk drivers locked up for a long time and for the most part got what they asked for. Are the improvements in public safety worth the cost? I guess the voters must think so because new prisons are still being built.

Posted by: John Neff | Jul 7, 2008 3:32:47 PM

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