Harsh Justice: Criminal Punishment and the Widening Divide Between America and Europe

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"Why is American punishment so cruel? While in continental Europe great efforts are made to guarantee that prisoners are treated humanely, in America sentences have gotten longer and rehabilitation programs have fallen by the wayside. Western Europe attempts to prepare its criminals for life after prison, whereas many American prisons today leave their inhabitants reduced and debased. In the last quarter of a century, Europe has worked to ensure that the baser human inclination toward vengeance is not reflected by state policy, yet America has
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Overview

"Why is American punishment so cruel? While in continental Europe great efforts are made to guarantee that prisoners are treated humanely, in America sentences have gotten longer and rehabilitation programs have fallen by the wayside. Western Europe attempts to prepare its criminals for life after prison, whereas many American prisons today leave their inhabitants reduced and debased. In the last quarter of a century, Europe has worked to ensure that the baser human inclination toward vengeance is not reflected by state policy, yet America has shown a systemic drive toward ever increasing levels of harshness in its criminal policies. Why is America so short on mercy? In this deeply researched, comparative work, James Q. Whitman reaches back to the 17th and 18th centuries to trace how and why American and European practices came to diverge. Eschewing the usual historical imprisonment narratives, Whitman focuses instead on intriguing differences in the development of punishment in the age of Western democracy. European traditions of social hierarchy and state power, so consciously rejected by the American colonies, nevertheless supported a more merciful and dignified treatment of offenders. The hierarchical class system on the continent kept alive a tradition of less-degrading ""high-status"" punishments that eventually became applied across the board in Europe. The distinctly American, draconian regime, on the other hand, grows, Whitman argues, out of America's longstanding distrust of state power and its peculiar, broad-brush sense of egalitarianism. Low-status punishments were evenly meted out to all offenders, regardless of class or standing. America's unrelentingly harshtreatment of trangressors—this ""equal opportunity degradation""— is, in a very real sense, the dark side of the nation's much vaunted individualism. A sobering look at the growing rift between the United States and Europe, Harsh Justice exposes the deep cultural roots of America's degrading punishment practices."
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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
Whitman, a professor at the Yale Law School, ambitiously seeks to explain modern sentencing practices in terms of age-old attitudes toward hierarchy, punishment and social status in France, Germany and colonial and independent America. Much of his book consequently deals less with contemporary practices than with 18th- and 19th-century law and customs. Yet Whitman's focus sheds useful light on the modern punitive gulf. For it turns out that the intellectual divergence that produced it is quite old. — Benjamin Wittes
Library Journal
Whitman (law, Yale) decries the increasingly cruel, inhumane, and degrading forms of criminal punishment growing in popularity and use in our society. He chronicles how this development began with New York's much-debated Rockefeller laws of the mid-1970s, which, combined with draconian federal drug laws of the same period, spurred growth in the reclassification of juveniles as "adults " and one-time misdemeanors as felonies, and the criminalization of activities previously tolerated. All this resulted in the United States having the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world. The author views these trends as the manifestation of an egalitarian attitude that took hold during the colonial era and never let go, dedicating the core of the book to the disparity in harshness and attitude between Western Europe and America. This country, he asserts, would do well to emulate that continent. Highly recommended for academic and law libraries.-Philip Y. Blue, New York State Supreme Court Criminal Branch Law Lib., First Judicial Dist., New York Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher

"In a thoroughly researched book that draws on a wide variety of sources from all three countries, Whitman presents innumerable fascinating details about the historical development of sentencing at home and abroad and debunks a variety of myths in doing so. His excellect overall knowledge of setencing developments on both sides of the Atlantic merges with his deep insights into other cultural, political, and legal traditions, especially in the areas of privacy and insult."--Michigan Law Review

"In focusing his considerable historical and narrative talents on the question of status and degradation in the history of punishment, Whitman has done legal historians, criminologists, and cultural theorists a great service. For these reasons alone, Harsh Justice should quickly establish itself as a must-read book in the world of criminal law and cultural legal studies."--Rechts Geschichte

"Whitman's whirlwind tour of the punishment practices of three countries over the last two centuries is well worth the price of admission. He has a deep pool of knowledge and an eye for the telling detail--a picture, a turn of phrase, or a small historical event--that helps to advance his thesis."--Boston Review

"Its combination of elegant writing, deep erudition and bold theorizing make the book a terrific read. Indeed, it ought to be required reading for anyone interested in how a society comes to punish the way it does--and how it should."--American Prospect

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195155259
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 3/28/2003
  • Pages: 311
  • Lexile: 1460L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 9.40 (w) x 6.30 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

James Q. Whitman is Ford Foundation Professor of Comparative and Foreign Law at Yale University. He has taught at Stanford and Harvard Law Schools and was trained as a historian at the University of Chicago before taking his law degree at Yale.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 3
1 Degradation, Harshness, and Mercy 19
2 Contemporary American Harshness: Rejecting Respect for Persons 41
3 Continental Dignity and Mildness 69
4 The Continental Abolition of Degradation 97
5 Low Status in the Anglo-American World 151
Conclusion: Two Revolutions of Status 191
Notes 209
Bibliography 273
Index 301
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