Special Events

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

Thursday, The Heyman Center

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.