A Dream Denied: Incarceration, Recidivism, and Young Minority Men in America

A Dream Denied: Incarceration, Recidivism, and Young Minority Men in America

by Michaela Soyer

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520290457
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 07/12/2016
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 184
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Michaela Soyer is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at Hunter College. 

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A Dream Denied

Incarceration, Recidivism, and Young Minority Men in America

By Michaela Soyer


Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96461-7


The Role of Agency in the Desistance Process


While they were held in detention facilities or treatment centers, most teenagers expressed an inflated sense of agency. Relying on the cultural narrative of the "American Dream," they believed in their ability to desist from crime, even if the odds were stacked against them. Criminologists often overlook the role agency plays in the desistance process. Structural conditions can be measured and quantified reliably. Operationalizing agency is more difficult. Direct observations of criminal acts are ethically dubious. Even if researchers were able to witness a crime in the making, it would be impossible to generalize from isolated instances. Although agency manifests itself measurably in the social world, it is connected to an internal decision-making process. To uncover motifs and deliberations, criminologists have to rely on in-depth interviews that can only approximate spur-of-the-moment choices. People's predictions or descriptions of their actions are often disconnected from what they are actually doing (Jerolmack and Khan 2014). Given the discipline's focus on applicability and generalizability, it is not surprising that many theories of criminal behavior and desistance focus on structural conditions as explanatory variables (Felson and Cohen 1979; Agnew 1992; Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990).


In contrast to criminologists, sociologists have engaged in countless iterations of the agency-structure debate. One of the most influential attempts to theorize agency is Pierre Bourdieu's concept of "habitus." Defined as embodied history, "habitus" shapes our seemingly free choices in style, preferences, and friendships. In Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (1984), Bourdieu describes "habitus" as a socially reproductive mechanism that binds the individual, her or his taste, and aspirations into a specific class position. Bourdieu's definition of habitus explains impermeable social structures and self-defeating choices (Willis 1981). At the same time, the notion of habitus precludes social change (Joas and Knöbl 2004).

In response to Bourdieu, William Sewell integrates the idea of habitus into a more dynamic model that accounts for actor-driven incremental social change. Sewell (1992) suggests that agency (defined as transposable cultural schemas) and social structure (defined as the distribution of resources) are dialectically intertwined. An actor is equipped with a range of schemata that he can use to modify the social structure he lives in. This decontextualization and reapplication of schemas is the motor for social change. Anne Swidler's concept of a "cultural toolkit" further unpacks the abstract mechanism of schema application. Resonating with Robert Merton's assumption (1938) about crime as an innovative tool to achieve a desired outcome, Swidler (1986) argues that children growing up in disadvantaged neighborhoods share middle-class values. They have, however, insufficient cultural tools to reach their middle-class goals.

Criminologists who theorize agency draw extensively on these theoretical debates. The advent of life-course research in the mid-1990s has led to a slow integration of theoretical ideas about agency into the empirical world of criminology. Based on retrospective interviews with five hundred former juvenile offenders, Robert Sampson and John Laub, for example, argue that experiencing turning points is important for sustaining long-term desistance from crime (Sampson and Laub 1993; Sampson and Laub 2005). Originally, the influence of turning points on desistance was investigated in terms of single external events that intervene in the life course — for example, marriage (Laub, Nagin, and Sampson 1998) or employment (Uggen 2000). In response to critics, however, Laub and Sampson began to take creativity and agency seriously. They now argue that turning points unfold their transformative potential only if an individual creatively shapes his or her future by acting in terms of the opportunities that have opened up (Sampson and Laub 2005).

Likewise, Peggy Giordano, Stephen Cernkovich, and Ryan Rudolph's work (2002) has been groundbreaking in operationalizing the role of agency during the desistance process. In their study of female offenders, they argue that a series of cognitive shifts in relation to structural "hooks for change" (for example, a new job opportunity) allowed some women to establish a life beyond their criminal past. They emphasize the importance of "agentic moves" for sustaining a life without crime (992). Thus, individual change is not only a reaction to environmental circumstances. The social environment may provide the "scaffolding" for self-transformation, but "individuals themselves must attend to these new possibilities, discard old habits, and begin the process of crafting a different way of life" (1000). Giordano, Cernkovich, and Rudolph therefore explicitly presuppose that the individual who seeks to transform him- or herself needs to have at least a minimal amount of choice concerning the future and should also be able to command a certain amount of power over his or her social environment (999).

Building on Giordano, Cernkovich, and Rudolph's theory of gradual cognitive shifts, Barry Vaughan describes the process of identity development as based on the actor's choices about what kind of person he or she strives to be. Vaughan (2007) suggests that perceptions and judgments of others play an important role in whether or not an individual is able to conceive of a viable new self. Interacting with a new partner, for instance, may provide specific experiences that allow the former offender to develop a concrete idea of what a life without crime could look like (401). Following Paul Ricoeur, Vaughan emphasizes that potential desisters need to narrativize their lives to bridge the gap between past and future selves (396). Much like Maruna (2001), Vaughan (2007) therefore suggests that establishing continuity between one's old and new self through narrative is important for successful desistance from crime. Likewise, Christoffer Carlsson (2012) maintains that through turning points may be distinct events, they are deeply embedded in nonlinear social processes. Emphasizing the interdependence of turning points and broader social mechanisms, Carlsson observes that self-transformation becomes possible through past experiences relating to current events, which in turn can lead to cognitive reconceptualization of the self. Those cognitive changes may then allow for future behavioral change (12).


Meyer R. Schkolknick was born in South Philadelphia in 1910, the second of two children born to first-generation Jewish immigrants from Poland. Meyer grew up in a slum filled with other newcomers from Europe. Just like their neighbors from Italy and Ireland, his parents had left their native country for a better life in the United States. Meyer's father, who never lost his thick Slavic accent, worked as a carpenter and truck driver. In the meantime his son became enmeshed in the violent life of the neighborhood. "I was a good and loyal gang member," Meyer recalled several decades later. He and his friends threw rocks and empty bottles at their rivals. He could easily have ended up in one of the infamous reform schools that mushroomed in the early 1900s. Fortunately, Meyer, a highly intelligent boy, was able to take advantage of educational pathways that incrementally opened up for talented Jewish students.

By 1961, when the former Meyer Schkolknick recalled his youth for the New Yorker, he had become Robert K. Merton, a distinguished professor of sociology at Columbia University. Merton lived in one of the large Tudor houses in Hastings-on-Hudson and was raising his own family worlds away from the "dingy and decrepit houses" of his youth (Hunt 1961, 54). Merton's upbringing fascinated his colleagues. Paul Lazersfeld, who spent his youth in an upper-middle-class Viennese household, soaked up Merton's stories of growing up in an inner-city slum. According to the New Yorker, young Meyer was able to move up the social ladder because he "felt the stirrings of an almost obsessive hunger for learning" (54). From Temple University Merton went on to Harvard, where his academic career began to take off. In the early 1930s, Harvard's student body was white, wealthy, and Protestant. Merton was a poor Jewish student who subsisted mostly on milkshakes and sandwiches. He even distilled his own whiskey. Despite his unusual upbringing Merton seemed to be well liked and made up for his lower-class background through his brilliance and gregariousness. The transformation of Meyer Schkolknick to Robert K. Merton has mythical qualities. As Merton conquered the ivory tower, he turned his impoverished upbringing into a classic American success story.

Given his biography, it is perhaps not surprising that Merton became the first sociologist to describe criminal behavior as an innovative adaptation by those who have been excluded from achieving mainstream success. In "Social Structure and Anomie" (1938) Merton understands criminal behavior as an outcome of a dysfunctional society that isolates the less fortunate. According to Merton, a criminal desires normative success just like any well-adjusted, law-abiding citizen. However, for those who come from a disadvantaged social background, conventional avenues to success may be blocked. As a result, the excluded resort to criminality as an innovative strategy to achieve their goals. As Merton (1938) writes: "The cultural demands made on persons in this situation are incompatible. On one hand they are asked to orient their conduct toward the prospect of accumulating wealth; on the other hand they are largely denied effective opportunities to do so institutionally" (679).

At Harvard Robert Merton crossed paths with another Jewish student, Albert Cohen, who was eight years his junior. Both studied under Talcott Parsons, but Cohen also became one of Merton's students. Like his teacher, Cohen (1955) believes that delinquency results from a disconnection between the American promise of unlimited opportunity and the reality of social closure. Cohen, who spent his entire career at the University of Connecticut, died in November 2014 at the age of ninety-six. His obituary, published in the official newsletter of the American Sociological Association, described his struggles in getting admitted to a graduate program, despite his Harvard BA. One department he applied to informed him that they did not admit Jews. Cohen, who eventually earned a Ph.D. at Indiana University in Bloomington, experienced firsthand the paradox of opportunities that are simultaneously present and unreachable — a phenomenon he later identified as the origin of delinquency.

In his seminal book Delinquent Boys: The Culture of the Gang, Cohen argues that young men subscribe to a delinquent subculture because it allows them to reach a status and respect they would never acquire within the framework of middle-class culture. A certain degree of social mobility, as well as the relative spatial proximity of the lower and middle classes, encourages the downward dissemination of middle-class norms to the working class. Some people who grow up working class may even be able to climb up the social ladder. They serve as an example of the feasibility of the "American Dream." This possibility of success makes individual failure to achieve upward mobility even more devastating. Subscribing to a subcultural lifestyle that mocks middle-class values, therefore, provides an outlet for this latent aggression. It allows the underdog to feel a sense of belonging, respect, and success.

Cohen and Merton were both outsiders. They epitomized Simmel's stranger — a person who is in a society but not of it (Simmel 1971 [1908]). Their Jewishness marked them as different, even while they had access to the rewards American society bestowed upon its successful members. From a biographical perspective both of them were ideally situated to understand the limitations and possibilities of the "American Dream."

As the twentieth century progressed, theories about anomie, crime, and the "American Dream" fell out of favor. The narrative receded, perhaps because those social scientists who had experienced the complexities of the "American Dream" were now part of the old guard. Or perhaps, as Messner and Rosenfeld (2007) argue, the increase in crime and the cut-throat, neoliberal economic and political climate of the 1970s and '80s marginalized a theory fundamentally concerned with social justice. Regardless of why the theory lost its importance, criminologists moved away from large-scale normative explanations of crime.

In the mid-1990s Steven Messner and Richard Rosenfeld put the "American Dream" again on the agenda. In their book Crime and the American Dream (2007) they argue that US society is suffering from widespread anomie — a disintegration of the social fabric that binds the individual to his or her community. In their opinion, this pervasive societal state is responsible for America's exceptionally high crimes rates compared to other industrialized nations.

Echoing Habermas's argument about the colonialization of the life world through the instrumental–rational system world, Messner and Rosenfeld suggest that schools and the family are constantly undermined by economic considerations. Schools, for example, do not foster learning for the sake of learning, but rather prepare their students for entering a market economy. Consequently, Americans favor attachments to the market over any other social institution. Tragically, as American society turns its back on educational, welfare, and government institutions, these institutions also lose their ability to provide an ethical counterbalance to the market economy. Engaging in criminal activities to further one's advancement thus becomes acceptable behavior across all social strata (Messner and Rosenfeld 2007).

In contrast to Messner and Rosenfeld, who develop a general theory of crime, Michelle Inderbitzin (2007a) focuses on the specific manifestation of the "American Dream" narrative in the juvenile justice system. She observes that staff members in juvenile justice facilities utilize the "American Dream" to lower teenagers' expectations of the reentry process. According to the cultural script of starting on the bottom and "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps," the teenagers are encouraged to expect little once they are released. Instead they are counseled to work hard to move up the social ladder. Like Merton, Inderbitzin recognizes that the teenagers' means and ends are disconnected. Aiming low solidifies their position at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. Hence, criminal activity seems the only way to achieve upward mobility.

My argument is diametrically opposed to Inderbitzin's observations. I suggest that juvenile justice institutions in Boston and Chicago did not encourage teenagers to "aim low," but rather engendered unrealistic expectations of a smooth and successful reentry process. In Inderbitzin's view, the teenagers are likely to experience a slow crumbling of their expectations over the life course. In contrast, I witnessed a relatively rapid disintegration of the teenagers' aspirations and dreams. Blaming themselves for their repeated failure to desist from crime, their optimism quickly turned into resignation. Believing in their agency, especially in moments when they hardly had any, did not have redemptive qualities (Maruna 2001). Being hopeful also did not increase the teenagers' chances of establishing a nondeviant identity (Abrams 2012). On the contrary, unrealistic expectations facilitated disappointment, hopelessness, and eventually recidivism.


To understand how the narrative of the "American Dream" disempowered the teenagers in Boston and Chicago, I move beyond the disciplinary boundaries of criminological theories.

Using the example of Appalachian miners, political sociologist John Gaventa (1982) seeks to explain the absence of collective action, despite the presence of grievances and resources for addressing them. Gaventa demonstrates that oppression takes a cognitive toll. Power not only keeps people from fighting back in actual fact but "also influences, shapes, determines conceptions of the necessities, possibilities and strategies of challenge in situations of latent conflict" (15). When the teenagers I interviewed insisted that they can overcome their disadvantage through hard work, or when they told me that they were the only ones to blame for their incarceration, they inadvertently disclosed that they had accepted their current unequal social position as a given. Focusing on this internal process of meaning-making thus reveals that minority teenagers are not simply over-policed and criminalized. They are also deeply embedded in a hegemonic discourse that presents the United States as an open and meritocratic society.

Gaventa's work heavily draws on a Marxian understanding of ideology. Marx and Gaventa both argue that the inability of the oppressed to see beyond their current social position is a convenient, if not intended, byproduct of extreme structural deprivation (Marx, in Tucker 1978, 158). In contrast to Gaventa's case of capitalist exploitation, the juvenile justice systems in Boston and Chicago did not deliberately marginalize teenagers. In fact, the systems tried to improve the teenagers' lives. However, they lacked the resources to effect meaningful change. To fill this void, the systems perpetuated a rhetoric of self-reliance and responsibility that was disconnected from the social reality the young men faced.


Excerpted from A Dream Denied by Michaela Soyer. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

List of Abbreviations xi

Introduction 1

1 The Role of Agency in the Desistance Process 13

2 Two Cities, Two Systems, Similar Problems: Juvenile Justice in Boston and Chicago 27

3 Too Little Too Late: Juvenile Justice as a Social Service Provider 43

4 Imagining Desistance 59

5 Weak Ties-Strong Emotions: Caring for Juvenile Offenders in Boston and Chicago 73

6 The Uncertainty of Freedom: Teenagers' Desire for Confinement and Supervision 90

7 "I know how to control myself": Autonomy and Discipline in the Desistance Process 102

Conclusion 131

Appendix: Methodological Reflections 137

Notes 155

References 161

Index 169

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