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6 - Criminal Justice in the United States

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 November 2008

Michael Grossberg
Affiliation:
Indiana University
Christopher Tomlins
Affiliation:
American Bar Foundation, Chicago
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Summary

Anyone vaguely familiar with the career of American criminal justice in the twentieth century knows this story does not have a happy ending. A liberal democracy that incarcerates more of its people per capita than any other nation on the planet cannot take pride in its crime policies; nor have those policies, like a revolver in the nightstand, made Americans feel particularly secure. Criminal justice – like crime itself – is often assumed to be an intractable social problem, timeless and impervious to reform. Who among us can imagine modern society without the prison? But criminal justice is inescapably the product of history. The historical trajectory of American criminal justice no longer seems as certain or progressive as it once did. When American criminology was still in its infancy as a scientific discipline, around the turn of the twentieth century, practitioners told the story of punishment in uniformly whiggish terms: a steady march toward ever more humane, modern methods. The past century in criminal justice now looks far otherwise: a record of abrupt shifts, stark continuities, and stunning reversals.

The twentieth century opened with a dramatic transformation in the ideas and institutions of American criminal justice. The United States was in the throes of industrial expansion, an era of rapid urbanization and mass immigration that had already turned a predominantly agrarian country into the world’s most productive industrial economy. To regulate the harshest human consequences of industrial capitalism, social reformers, lawmakers, and innovative government officials began to put together the pieces of an administrative-welfare state.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2008

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References

Cantor, Nathaniel, “Law and the Social Sciences,”American Bar Association Journal 16 (1930).Google Scholar
Irwin, John et al., “America’s One Million Nonviolent Prisoners,”Social Justice 27 (2000).Google Scholar
McLennan, Rebecca, “Punishment’s ‘Square Deal’: Prisoners and Their Keepers in 1920s New York,”Journal of Urban History 29 (2003).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Packer, Herbert L., “The Model Penal Code and Beyond,”Columbia Law Review 63 (1963).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Walker, Samuel, Popular Justice: A History of American Criminal Justice (2nd ed., New York, 1998).Google Scholar
Wechsler, Herbert, “The Challenge of a Model Penal Code,”Harvard Law Review 65 (1952).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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