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The Punishment Imperative

The Rise and Failure of Mass Incarceration in America

Todd R. Clear

Publication Year: 2013

“Backed up by the best science, Todd Clear and Natasha Frost make a compelling case for why the nation’s forty-year embrace of the punitive spirit has been morally bankrupt and endangered public safety.  But this is far more than an exposé of correctional failure.  Recognizing that a policy turning point is at hand, Clear and Frost provide a practical blueprint for choosing a different correctional future—counsel that is wise and should be widely followed.”—Francis T. Cullen, Distinguished Research Professor of Criminal Justice, University of Cincinnati 
Over the last 35 years, the US penal system has grown at a rate unprecedented in US history—five times larger than in the past and grossly out of scale with the rest of the world. This growth was part of a sustained and intentional effort to “get tough” on crime, and characterizes a time when no policy options were acceptable save for those that increased penalties. In The Punishment Imperative, eminent criminologists Todd R. Clear and Natasha A. Frost argue that America’s move to mass incarceration from the 1960s to the early 2000s was more than just a response to crime or a collection of policies adopted in isolation; it was a grand social experiment. Tracing a wide array of trends related to the criminal justice system, The Punishment Imperative charts the rise of penal severity in America and speculates that a variety of forces—fiscal, political, and evidentiary—have finally come together to bring this great social experiment to an end.
Clear and Frost stress that while the doubling of the crime rate in the late 1960s represented one of the most pressing social problems at the time, this is not what served as a foundation for the great punishment experiment. Rather, it was the way crime posed a political problem—and thereby offered a political opportunity—that became the basis for the great rise in punishment. The authors claim that the punishment imperativeis a particularly insidious social experiment because the actual goal was never articulated, the full array of consequences was never considered, and the momentum built even as the forces driving the policy shifts diminished.  Clear and Frost argue that the public’s growing realization that the severe policies themselves, not growing crime rates, were the main cause of increased incarceration eventually led to a surge of interest in taking a more rehabilitative, pragmatic, and cooperative approach to dealing with criminal offenders.
The Punishment Imperative cautions that the legacy of the grand experiment of the past forty years will be difficult to escape. However, the authors suggest that the United States now stands at the threshold of a new era in penal policy, and they offer several practical and pragmatic policy solutions to changing the criminal justice system’s approach to punishment. Part historical study, part forward-looking policy analysis, The Punishment Imperative is a compelling study of a generation of crime and punishment in America.
Todd R. Clear is Dean of the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University. He is the author of Imprisoning Communities and What Is Community Justice? and the founding editor of the journal Criminology & Public Policy.

Published by: NYU Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

In the academic world, much goes into the order of authorship, particularly for important works such as books. Although we have published this book with the authors listed alphabetically by last name, we emphasize here that we contributed equally to this book from conception through completion. ...

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1. The Beginning of the End of the Punishment Imperative

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pp. 1-16

In the early 1970s, the United States embarked on a subtle change in the way it punished people for crimes. The prison population, stable for half a century, shifted upward. At first, this was little noticed, so much so that even as the number of people behind bars was inching upward, prominent criminologists were hypothesizing that there was an underlying stability ...

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2. The Contours of Mass Incarceration

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pp. 17-46

As the United States’ prison and jail population approached, and then, in midyear 2002, exceeded the two million mark for the first time,1 commentators— both expert and otherwise—no longer found it sufficient to refer to incarceration in the United States as simply incarceration: incarceration became mass incarceration. ...

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3. The Punishment Imperative as a Grand Social Experiment

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pp. 47-70

In the previous chapter we reviewed some of the major trends in prison population growth over the past several decades and introduced some of the most influential explanations for that growth. We showed that the growth of punishment—especially imprisonment—over the last forty years has been unprecedented in U.S. history and outstrips other nations’ experiences. ...

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4. The Policies of the Punishment Imperative

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pp. 71-112

When the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice (hereafter 1967 Crime Commission) convened by President Lyndon B. Johnson released its report, The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society, in 1967, the influence of the Great Society ideas and ideals was still very evident. ...

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5. Two Views on the Objectives of the Punishment Imperative

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pp. 113-136

We have argued that the Punishment Imperative should be thought of as a “grand social experiment,” and we are not alone in using this term. Increasingly, scholars make reference to a “policy experiment” or an “experiment in mass incarceration.”1 Without being as explicit, these scholars recognize what we have said in chapter 4, ...

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6. Assessing the Punishment Imperative

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pp. 137-158

Now that we are close to forty years into the grand social experiment in punishment, and especially if (as we believe) it is coming to an end, we should be able to draw some conclusions and extract some lessons learned from it. In the previous chapter, we argued that there were both manifest and latent objectives for the Punishment Imperative— ...

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7. Dismantling the Punishment Imperative

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pp. 159-188

In our opening chapter, we argued that the Punishment Imperative, dominant for more than a generation, has now run its course. If we are right, then we are still in the very earliest days of this change. Yet if we are right, it will be because an uncoordinated set of forces distributed around the country has reached an unofficial conclusion ...


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pp. 189-230


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pp. 231-252


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pp. 253-258

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About the Authors

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pp. 259-271

Todd R. Clear is Dean of the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University. He received his Ph.D. in Criminal Justice from the University at Albany, State University of New York. ...

E-ISBN-13: 9781479829026
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814717196
Print-ISBN-10: 0814717195

Page Count: 272
Publication Year: 2013