In addition to being engrossed in my animal rights/criminal justice project, I have the happy and challenging obligation of writing an encyclopedia entry for the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice on “politics and penality.” This is a daunting project because it calls for a preliminary working definition of what current scholarship means by “politics” and what it means by “penality.” Critical writings on punishment and society, especially on the macro level and especially recently, tend to examine punishment within a reality of political priorities, and particularly in the context of power and inequality in their many forms. This calls for a loose, broad definition of “politics”. Moreover, scholarship has come to understand penality as a broad regime, beyond obvious and visible representations of penal power such as criminal courtrooms and prisons.

I’m still thinking about how to conceptualize the project (this post is part of that reflection), but it seems to me like there are at least three trends in recent literature on politics and penality that are particularly interesting:

1. The Separation and Overlap of Politics and Penality and the Importance of Neoliberalism as an Explanatory Factor

As I mentioned, one of the major novelties of the literature is observing and reporting on manifestations of penality outside the prison. In that respect, the work of critical geographers, economists, and public policy scholars has been most instructive. The notion of “million dollar blocks” has brought prison planning and expense out of the prison and into neighborhoods. The work on the impact of incarceration on families expands the circle affected by mass incarceration beyond the prison. The work on the conflation of ghetto and prison shows not only exclusion and confinement operating in and out of the prison, but also the inexorable link between the decline in welfare and the rise in incarceration as economic factors. Work that sees the hand of incarceration in landscape and industry; this “carceral term” is especially linked to the overall rise in importance of neoliberalism in explaining penality. It seems like neoliberalism is now at the heart of any macroanalysis of politics, and penality is no exception: what emerges from the literature is the sense that the tyranny of capitalism, miserly manifestations of shrinking welfare, and in general, the lack of care for the bottom 15% (20%? 50%? 99%?) of the population is what drives penality. This school of thought, which sees penality as the product of a grander political program, manifests itself not only in the context of class, but also race (particularly in North American writings that see punishment as part of a “racial project”). These big picture analyses tend to suggest a grand and sinister plan, in which punishment serves as a tool for a larger political economy scheme (echoing radical Marxist criminology) and has been criticized by some as imposing current notions of neoliberalism and capitalism rather than taking historical or contemporary actors on their own terms. There are also big questions as to the extent to which grand political trends (such as managerialism/actuarial justice) trickle down to actual actors. Neoliberalism also means that, popular progressive calls for abolitionism aside, it’s hard to imagine what abolitionism would actually look like, though some try.

2. The Association of Punitivism with Particular Political Positions

Critical literature of the 1970s through the 1990s that looked at the emergence of mass incarceration in the United States tended to associate classic association with conservatism, and with good reason. The classic bogeymen of this period are Nixon and Reagan–both associated with one of the major bogeymen of mass incarceration, the war on drugs. But more recent literature tends to view Nixon and Reagan not as aberrations, but rather as a continuation of trends that involved pathologization, criminalization, and marginalization, particularly of young black men. This literature ranges from arguments that particular liberal groups unwittingly contributed to disastrous circumstances (including opponents of harsh punishment) to arguments that see liberals as having “built prison America”, including welfare-minded professionals espousing paternalism toward the “pathologies of the black family.” These new writings are not unrelated to agonistic perspectives on criminal justice, which show that, rather than “seismic shifts” to and away from punitivism, criminal justice policy is the product of constant negotiation between political forces and movements.

Most recently, literature has drawn attention to the fact that punitivism is alive and well even within progressive and radical movements. Most of this literature looks at carceral feminism, in the context of human traffickingviolence against women, and #metoo campaigns (see here and here), as indivisible from the overall neoliberal frame; but some literature links it to other progressive movements’ inconsistent calls to dismantle the carceral state while applying its logic to enemies of the movement (see also here and here).

3. Geopolitical Penality, Penality and Protection, Penality and National Security

New literature sees penality beyond the context of the domestic, as a manifestation of growing nationalism and security trends in a variety of countries around the world. The idea of border criminologies looks at how penality, xenophobia, and national security intersect, as does the relatively new field of crimmigration. As recession-era politics in the global north curbed incarceration, they affected a shift in resources and private investment toward immigration enforcement, the use of criminal logics in the immigration context, and the introduction of criminal technologies in managing immigration. Also important is the penal manifestation of political shifts in postcolonial and developing settings.

Please, let me know if there are other hot topics in politics and penality that you think are relevant!

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