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What Do We Mean when We Talk About Punishment? Featured
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What Do We Mean when We Talk About Punishment?

June 29, 2012 2047

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Because of the truly monumental explosion in imprisonment in Western nations, especially in the United States, there has been a growth in scholarly interest in punishment. Why do we punish and to what ends? Why do we now punish so harshly? What explains the massive shift in public resources from various kinds of social needs (education, infrastructural maintenance and development, health and welfare) to punitive criminal justice? While the circumstances under which this burgeoning interest has developed are not necessarily positive ones, it has meant that we have a robust account of modern punishment, especially of the contemporary use of imprisonment. What has fallen a bit through the cracks, however, has been how the increasingly punitive tendencies of various states have taken form, beyond just through increased imprisonment rates.

Our recently published special issue in Theoretical Criminology, Theorizing Punishment’s Boundaries, addresses some of those missing pieces. The articles in the issue reveal how the state’s power to punish is wielded in insidious ways, such that its harms are both broader and deeper than what is reflected in the growth-in-imprisonment statistics. The first three articles of the issue look behind the scenes, inside a variety of penal and detention institutions, to uncover in detail how punishment is experienced, even within settings that are ostensibly non-punitive. These pieces also significantly add to our understanding of how globalization, and global immigration, have fundamentally changed life inside such institutions.

The second set of three essays ask readers to think about where punishment resides, and how it is exercised beyond formal legal structures and punitive institutions such as the prison. In so doing, they call for new definitions of “punishment” that hews less closely to law-on-the-books, and formal sanctioning processes. These articles explore how seemingly progressive bail practices in alternative court settings punish; how the harshest, most infamous aspects of the American War on Drugs represent only a small piece of the punitive practices associated with that campaign; and how legal institutions deploy “non-criminal” legal tools to extend their punitive reach into the lives of marginalized citizens.

We think this special issue will invigorate the theory and substance of “punishment and society” scholarship by explicitly questioning the edges of taken-for-granted boundaries of punishment, and by providing specific, detailed accounts of contemporary penal practices. Taken together, the articles in the issue begin a conversation about a number of theoretical and substantive questions: How have states expanded punitive power through ostensibly non-punitive means, and how do these innovations complicate theorizations about contemporary punishment? Where and how does state punishment overlap with practices of contemporary immigration control, and do these phenomena differ by locale? Is state punishment really distinct from the processes that precede it—law enforcement, adjudication, and sentencing—and how might punishment theory and empirical scholarship benefit from more fully engaging in these earlier stages? What do all of these things mean for understanding why the poor and ethnic minorities are persistently (and globally) over-targeted for punitive intervention, and how is punishment gendered in unexpected ways?

The issue is capped off with an essay by that delineates the tension in punishment scholarship between global, grand theoretical accounts that necessarily simplify complex and varied phenomena and that which delves into those messy, diverse, on-the-ground punishment practices. The author reminds us that questions of scope and scale of the sort that we raise in this issue do not have single correct answers; that on-the-ground examinations can be richly informed by broad theoretical arguments, and that those macro-theories, too, can richly benefit from attending to messy realities, even ones that complicate the clean, spare lines of the argument. We agree, and hope that this issue will further those exchanges across and between those levels of analysis.

Written by Kelly Hannah-Moffat and Mona Lynch

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