The Punishment Imperative: The Rise and Failure of Mass Incarceration in America

Todd R. Clear and Natasha A. Frost. New York Univ., $30 (272p) ISBN 978-0-8147-1719-6
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Criminologists Clear (Imprisoning Communities) and Frost (The Punitive State) offer an accessible study of mass incarceration in the U.S. that is theoretically sophisticated and rich in statistical data. Though the prose is sometimes uninspired, the authors make up for this with an unsparing analysis that traces a historical arc over the last 50 years, identifying and indicting the titular “punishment imperative” as a “grand social experiment” that put politics (in the form of tough-on-crime legislation) ahead of an “evidence-based” approach, which recognizes that incarceration is neither the only, nor the best, instrument for dealing with crime. Mandatory sentencing, the “war on drugs,” “three-strikes” laws, and the American punitive impulse all come in for intense scrutiny. Condemning the system’s disruption of community cohesion through its implicit racism and the institutional hurdles it creates, the authors propose an alternative program that would replace the prison industrial complex with a system that is “smarter on crime.” A meticulously organized concluding chapter lays out their proposals with an eye toward reducing sentences and making them more humane for nonviolent offenders. The book merits serious consideration beyond an academic audience. (Dec.)
Reviewed on: 10/14/2013
Release date: 11/01/2013
Genre: Nonfiction
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