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Punitive Politics in the United States: The End of an Era?

Punitive Politics in the United States: The End of an Era?

Keally McBride

It is a little known fact that Cesare Beccaria should be included among te inspirations of the Founders of the United States. His work guided the revolutionaries as they argued why exactly the rule of the British Crown was fundamentally unjust and they were within their rights to overturn it. When Thomas Paine urged colonists to sever ties to the sanguinary empire, he referred to the fact that the English had only one sentence in their punitive toolbox: death for all! This obvious travesty of justice led the British to transport convicts to labor abroad in exchange for their heads, but the recipients of these convicts—the North American colonies—were often less than enthused by the practice. The first act of the Pennsylvania state legislature was to ban the importation of convicts into the state. Early American theorists argued that misbegotten forms of punishment created misshapen citizens, and were evidence of corrupt or inept regimes. In On Crimes and Punishments (1764), Beccaria argued that modern governments needed to punish in ways that were predictable, rational, and proportionate. By following these simple principles, governments would make it possible for people to accept the legitimacy of their punishment, and the authority of the state would not be undone by its response to crime.

There is a perception that today, and for some time, the United States has failed to meet these fundamentals of enlightened government that Beccaria asserted in 1764. This opinion has spread rapidly in the last three or four years in particular, somewhat inexplicably jumping from leftist conferences attended by those dismissed as dangerous or entirely irrelevant radicals to the official editorial column of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. The litany of charges is familiar: We have the highest incarceration rate in the world; we are wasting money cycling people in and out of prisons instead of spending on more fruitful activities such as education and infrastructure; disproportionate minority sentencing indicates that we fail the test of equity and have instituted a new form of Jim Crow; stop-and-frisk policies target black male youths who have not committed any crime and violate the tenet of being innocent until proven guilty; and “humane” lethal injections that cause prisoners to die for two hours in agony are both unusual and cruel. One of the few coalitions one can find between liberals and conservatives in the national political landscape these days is an agreement that we spend too much on corrections to little effect.

Three books, “Trading Democracy” for Justice by Traci Burch, “Pulled Over” by Charles R. Epp, Steven MaynardMoody, and Donald P. Haider-Markel, and “On The Run” by Alice Goffman, belong at the core of this recent debate, which slowly but surely seems to be nudging the punitive practices of the United States under the glare of more scrutiny.

Trading Democracy for Justice: Criminal Convictions and the Decline of Neighborhood Political Participation. By Traci Burch. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. 272p. $75.00 cloth, $25.00 paper.
Pulled Over: How Police Stops Define Race and Citizenship. By Charles R. Epp, Steven Maynard-Moody, and Donald P. Haider-Markel. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014. 288p. $25.00 cloth, $15.00 paper.
On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City. By Alice Goffman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014. 288p. $25.00 cloth, $15.00 paper.

Punitive Politics in the United States: The End of an Era?, by Keally McBride, Perspectives on Politics / Volume 13 / Issue 03 / September 2015, pp 749-753