The Politics of Imprisonment: How the Democratic Process Shapes the Way America Punishes Offenders

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The attention devoted to the unprecedented levels of imprisonment in the United States obscure an obvious but understudied aspect of criminal justice: there is no consistent punishment policy across the U.S. It is up to individual states to administer their criminal justice systems, and the differences among them are vast. For example, while some states enforce mandatory minimum sentencing, some even implementing harsh and degrading practices, others rely on community sanctions. What accounts for these differences?

The Politics of Imprisonment seeks to document and explain variation in American penal sanctioning, drawing out the larger lessons for America's overreliance on imprisonment. Grounding her study in a comparison of how California, Washington, and New York each developed distinctive penal regimes in the late 1960s and early 1970s—a critical period in the history of crime control policy and a time of unsettling social change—Vanessa Barker concretely demonstrates that subtle but crucial differences in political institutions, democratic traditions, and social trust shape the way American states punish offenders. Barker argues that the apparent link between public participation, punitiveness, and harsh justice is not universal but dependent upon the varying institutional contexts and patterns of civic engagement within the U.S. and across liberal democracies.

A bracing examination of the relationship between punishment and democracy, The Politics of Imprisonment not only suggests that increased public participation in the political process can support and sustain less coercive penal regimes, but also warns that it is precisely a lack of civic engagement that may underpin mass incarceration in the United States.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A fascinating book. Barker skillfully shows how enduring cultural and political forces led states to interpret rising crime rates differently, creating not a single American penal system, but rather a patchwork of punitive regimes. Essential reading for those interested in understanding how distinct patterns of democratic engagement have shaped this key social institution."—Margaret Weir, University of California, Berkeley

"The Politics of Imprisonment is the first book to focus on state penal policy rather than the much-trod territory of America as a nation, and does so in a way that is both highly original and well-grounded in social science theory. Barker develops a well-written analysis of institutions and political participation that will become an essential guide for those seeking to understand or find a way out of mass imprisonment in the United States."—Jonathan Simon, University of California, Berkeley

"This excellent book develops an innovative perspective on the sociology of punishment, grounded in a rich, textured analysis of the interplay between political culture and incarceration in the U.S. By comparing what she calls states' 'penal regimes,' Vanessa Barker successfully manages to dispel the received idea the American punishment is somehow all-of-a-piece, while also calling into doubt the view that democratic participation invariably has harsh penal consequences. This is engaged scholarship of the highest order."—Ian Loader, University of Oxford

"Getting beyond the by now familiar rhetoric of the incarceration boom, Barker insightfully examines the penal practices of three American states. In so doing she shows how differences in political structures and cultures express themselves and shape the policies and practices of punishment. The Politics of Imprisonment holds out hope that increased democratization can support less, not more, coercive penal regimes. All told, this is a very impressive book."—Austin Sarat, Amherst College

"Vanessa Barker's research on imprisonment rates in California, New York, and Washington is the most ambitious, systematic, and empirically accomplished effort to explain striking disparities in incarceration rates. In finding that the disparities among these three states are largely a function of variations in political institutions and modes of political participation—rather than racial bias, crime rates, and other widely accepted factors—The Politics of Imprisonment will serve as a benchmark and a beacon for further inquiry into this hotly contested issue."—Stuart Scheingold, University of Washington

"Impressive... [It] does a service for scholars.... The book has a great deal to commend it. It has already generated much discussion and raised a range of new resarch questions. It deserves to be widely read and influential, and it surely will be."—American Journal of Sociology

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195370027
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 8/26/2009
  • Series: Studies in Crime and Public Policy Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 264
  • Sales rank: 1,501,982
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Vanessa Barker is Assistant Professor of Criminology at Florida State University.

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Table of Contents

1. The Democratic Process & Imprisonment
2. Explaining Penal Regime Variation: Political Structures & Collective Agency
3. The Case of California: Neo-populism & Retribution
4. Washington State Deliberates: From Fortress Prison to De-escalation
5. New York: Elite Pragmatism & Managerialism
6. Democratic Governance, Social Trust & Penal Order
Appendix A: Selected US Imprisonment Rates, 1971-2006
1. The Democratic Process & Imprisonment
2. Explaining Penal Regime Variation: Political Structures & Collective Agency
3. The Case of California: Neo-populism & Retribution
4. Washington State Deliberates: From Fortress Prison to De-escalation
5. New York: Elite Pragmatism & Managerialism
6. Democratic Governance, Social Trust & Penal Order
Appendix A: Selected US Imprisonment Rates, 1971-2006

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