After four decades of an expanding carceral state, political leaders are increasingly championing proposals framed as smart—rather than simply tough—on crime. Yet as states increasingly adopt progressive reforms like scaling back the drug war, punishment in other respects continues to grow harsher. This article applies the agonistic perspective to explain these contradictory trends. I argue that the struggles of agonists in the penal field, in the context of socio-structural changes, have produced this pattern of reform. In particular, although the conservative Right on Crime movement has claimed much of the credit, recent policy shifts would not have been possible without the long struggle of progressive and moderate actors throughout the past four decades to challenge the punitive status quo. In addition, the emergent alliances between groups with contrasting political ideologies help explain both the possibilities and limitations of reform.


Article metrics loading...

Loading full text...

Full text loading...


Literature Cited

  1. Alexander M. 2010. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness New York: New Press, 1st ed.. [Google Scholar]
  2. Austin J. 2016. Regulating California's prison population: the use of sticks and carrots. Ann. Am. Acad. Polit. Soc. Sci. 664:184–107 [Google Scholar]
  3. Austin J, Cadora E, Clear TR, Dansky K, Greene J. et al. 2013. Ending Mass Incarceration: Charting a New Justice Reinvestment Washington, DC: Sentencing Project [Google Scholar]
  4. Austin J, Krisberg B. 1981. Wider, stronger, and different nets: the dialectics of criminal justice reform. J. Res. Crime Delinq. 18:1165–96 [Google Scholar]
  5. Aviram H. 2015. Cheap on Crime: Recession-Era Politics and the Transformation of American Punishment Oakland: Univ. Calif. Press [Google Scholar]
  6. Aviram H. 2016. The correctional hunger games: understanding realignment in the context of the great recession. Ann. Am. Acad. Polit. Soc. Sci. 664:260–79 [Google Scholar]
  7. Barker V. 2009. The Politics of Imprisonment: How the Democratic Process Shapes the Way America Punishes Offenders Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press [Google Scholar]
  8. Beckett K, Knaphus E, Reosti A. 2016a. The end of mass incarceration? Mapping the contradictions of criminal justice policy and practice ID 2714615, Soc. Sci. Res. Netw., Rochester, NY [Google Scholar]
  9. Beckett K, Reosti A, Knaphus E. 2016b. The end of an era? Understanding the contradictions of criminal justice reform. Ann. Am. Acad. Polit. Soc. Sci. 664:238–59 [Google Scholar]
  10. Bennett WJ, Walters JP. 2015. Bring back the war on drugs. The Boston Globe Sept. 8, https://www.boston-globe.com/opinion/editorials/2015/09/08/bring-back-war-drugs/h2wWV7ojkje4P5dwIbmgPK/story.html [Google Scholar]
  11. Bergstrom M, Mistick JS. 2010. Danger and opportunity: making public safety job one in Pennsylvania's indeterminate sentencing system. Justice Res. Policy 12:173–88 [Google Scholar]
  12. Blumstein A, Cohen J. 1973. A theory of the stability of punishment. J. Crim. Law Criminol. 64:198–207 [Google Scholar]
  13. Blumstein A, Wallman J. 2006. The crime drop and beyond. Annu. Rev. Law Soc. Sci. 2:1125–46 [Google Scholar]
  14. Bonta J, Andrews DA. 2007. Risk-Need-Responsivity Model for Offender Assessment and Rehabilitation Ottawa: Public Saf. Can. [Google Scholar]
  15. Bosworth M. 2011. Penal moderation in the United States?. Criminol. Public Policy 10:2335–43 [Google Scholar]
  16. Brown v. Plata No. 09-1233, 563 U.S. ___ 2011.
  17. Brown EK. 2013. Foreclosing on incarceration? State correctional policy enactments and the great recession. Crim. Justice Policy Rev. 24:3317–37 [Google Scholar]
  18. Bruce Edwin Callins, Petitioner v. James A. Collins, Director, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Institutional Division 510 U.S. 1141 1994. https://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/93-7054.ZA1.html
  19. Bushway SD. 2011. So policy makers drive incarceration—Now what?. Criminol. Public Policy 10:2327–33 [Google Scholar]
  20. Cadora E. 2014. Civics lessons: how certain schemes to end mass incarceration can fail. Ann. Am. Acad. Polit. Soc. Sci. 651:1277–85 [Google Scholar]
  21. Campbell MC, Schoenfeld H. 2013. The transformation of America's penal order: a historicized political sociology of punishment. Am. J. Sociol. 118:51375–423 [Google Scholar]
  22. Campbell MC, Vogel M, Williams J. 2015. Historical contingencies and the evolving importance of race, violent crime, and region in explaining mass incarceration in the United States. Criminology 53:2180–203 [Google Scholar]
  23. Carson EA. 2015. Prisoners in 2014 Washington, DC: Bur. Justice Stat. [Google Scholar]
  24. Carson EA, Golinelli D. 2013. Prisoners in 2012: Trends in Admissions and Releases, 1991–2012 Washington, DC: Bur. Justice Stat. [Google Scholar]
  25. Chettiar IM, Waldman M. 2015. Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out on Criminal Justice New York: Brennan Cent. Justice [Google Scholar]
  26. Clear TR. 2007. Imprisoning Communities: How Mass Incarceration Makes Disadvantaged Neighborhoods Worse Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press [Google Scholar]
  27. Clear TR. 2015. The criminology of downsizing. Vict. Offenders 10:4358–64 [Google Scholar]
  28. Clear TR, Austin J. 2009. Reducing mass incarceration: implications of the iron law of prison populations. Harvard Law Policy Rev 3–2:307–24 [Google Scholar]
  29. Clear TR, Frost NA. 2015. The Punishment Imperative: The Rise and Failure of Mass Incarceration in America New York: N.Y. Univ. Press [Google Scholar]
  30. Cullen FT. 2005. The twelve people who saved rehabilitation: how the science of criminology made a difference. Criminology 43:11–42 [Google Scholar]
  31. Cullen FT, Fisher BS, Applegate BK. 2000. Public opinion about punishment and corrections. Crime Justice 27:1–79 [Google Scholar]
  32. Cullen FT, Gendreau P. 2001. From nothing works to what works: changing professional ideology in the 21st century. Prison J 81:3313–38 [Google Scholar]
  33. Dagan D, Teles SM. 2014. Locked in? Conservative reform and the future of mass incarceration. Ann. Am. Acad. Polit. Soc. Sci. 651:1266–76 [Google Scholar]
  34. Dagan D, Teles SM. 2015. The social construction of policy feedback: incarceration, conservatism, and ideological change. Stud. Am. Polit. Dev. 29:02127–53 [Google Scholar]
  35. De Giorgi A. 2015. Five theses on mass incarceration. Soc. Justice 42:25–30 [Google Scholar]
  36. Donohue JJI. 2009. Assessing the relative benefits of incarceration: overall changes and the benefits on the margin. Do Prisons Make Us Safer? S Raphael, MA Stoll 269–342 New York: Russell Sage Found. [Google Scholar]
  37. Doob AN, Webster CM. 2014. Creating the will to change: the challenges of decarceration in the United States. Criminol. Public Policy 13:4547–59 [Google Scholar]
  38. Eaglin JM. 2013. Against neorehabilitation. SMU Law Rev 66:189 [Google Scholar]
  39. Editorial Board. 2014. End mass incarceration now. New York Times May 24. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/25/opinion/sunday/end-mass-incarceration-now.html [Google Scholar]
  40. Enns PK. 2016. Incarceration Nation: How the United States Became the Most Punitive Democracy in the World Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press [Google Scholar]
  41. Friedman M, Fortier N, Cullen J. 2015. Crime in 2015: A Preliminary Analysis New York: Brennan Cent. Justice [Google Scholar]
  42. Friedson M, Sharkey P. 2015. Violence and neighborhood disadvantage after the crime decline. Ann. Am. Acad. Polit. Soc. Sci. 660:1341–58 [Google Scholar]
  43. Gass N. 2016. Sen. Tom Cotton: U.S. has “under-incarceration problem.”. POLITICO May 19. http://www.politico.com/story/2016/05/tom-cotton-under-incarceration-223371 [Google Scholar]
  44. Gonnerman J. 2005. Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett New York: Picador [Google Scholar]
  45. Goodman P, Page J, Phelps M. 2015. The long struggle: an agonistic perspective on penal development. Theor. Criminol. 19:3315–35 [Google Scholar]
  46. Gottschalk M. 2010. Cell blocks & red ink: mass incarceration, the great recession & penal reform. Daedalus 139:362–73 [Google Scholar]
  47. Gottschalk M. 2013. Sentenced to life: penal reform and the most severe sanctions. Annu. Rev. Law Soc. Sci. 9:1353–82 [Google Scholar]
  48. Gottschalk M. 2015a. Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press [Google Scholar]
  49. Gottschalk M. 2015b. Bring it on: the future of penal reform, the carceral state, and American politics. Ohio State J. Crim. Law 12:2559–604 [Google Scholar]
  50. Gowan T, Whetstone S. 2012. Making the criminal addict: subjectivity and social control in a strong-arm rehab. Punishm. Soc. 14:169–93 [Google Scholar]
  51. Green DA. 2013. Penal optimism and second chances: the legacies of American Protestantism and the prospects for penal reform. Punishm. Soc. 15:2123–46 [Google Scholar]
  52. Green DA. 2015. US penal-reform catalysts, drivers, and prospects. Punishm. Soc. 17:3271–98 [Google Scholar]
  53. Greene J, Mauer M. 2010. Downscaling Prisons: Lessons from Four States Washington, DC: Sentencing Project [Google Scholar]
  54. Hagan J. 2010. Who Are the Criminals? The Politics of Crime Policy from the Age of Roosevelt to the Age of Reagan Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press [Google Scholar]
  55. Harris A, Evans H, Beckett K. 2010. Drawing blood from stones: legal debt and social inequality in the contemporary United States. Am. J. Sociol. 115:61753–99 [Google Scholar]
  56. Jacobson M. 2005. Downsizing Prisons: How to Reduce Crime and End Mass Incarceration New York: N.Y. Univ. Press [Google Scholar]
  57. Jenness V, Smyth M. 2011. The passage and implementation of the Prison Rape Elimination Act: legal endogeneity and the uncertain road from symbolic law to instrumental effects. Stanford Law Policy Rev 22:489–528 [Google Scholar]
  58. Kaeble D, Glaze LE, Tsoutis A, Minton T. 2015. Correctional Populations in the United States, 2014 Washington, DC: Bur. Justice Stat. [Google Scholar]
  59. Klingele C. 2013. Rethinking the use of community supervision. J. Crim. Law Criminol. 103:41015–70 [Google Scholar]
  60. Klingele CM. 2016. The promises and perils of evidence-based corrections. Notre Dame Law Rev 91:2537–84 [Google Scholar]
  61. Kohler-Hausmann I. 2013. Misdemeanor justice: control without conviction. Am. J. Sociol. 119:2351–93 [Google Scholar]
  62. Liedka RV, Piehl AM, Useem B. 2006. The crime-control effect of incarceration: Does scale matter?. Criminol. Public Policy 5:2245–76 [Google Scholar]
  63. Lofstrom M, Martin B. 2015. Public Safety Realignment: Impacts So Far San Francisco, CA: Public Policy Inst. Calif. [Google Scholar]
  64. Lopez GP. 2014. How mainstream reformers design ambitious reentry programs doomed to fail and destined to reinforce targeted mass incarceration and social control. Hastings Race Poverty Law J 11:1–109 [Google Scholar]
  65. Lowman J, Menzies RJ, Palys TS. 1987. Transcarceration: Essays in the Sociology of Social Control Aldershot, UK: Gower [Google Scholar]
  66. Mac Donald H. 2015. The new nationwide crime wave. Wall Street Journal May 29. http://www.wsj.com/articles/the-new-nationwide-crime-wave-1432938425 [Google Scholar]
  67. Miller RJ. 2014. Devolving the carceral state: race, prisoner reentry, and the micro-politics of urban poverty management. Punishm. Soc. 16:3305–35 [Google Scholar]
  68. Murch D. 2015. Crack in Los Angeles: crisis, militarization, and black response to the late twentieth-century war on drugs. J. Am. Hist. 102:1162–73 [Google Scholar]
  69. Natapoff A. 2105. Misdemeanor decriminalization. Vanderbilt Law Rev 68:41055–116 [Google Scholar]
  70. O'Malley P. 1999. Volatile and contradictory punishment. Theor. Criminol. 3:2175–96 [Google Scholar]
  71. Oppor. Agenda 2014. An Overview of Public Opinion and Discourse on Criminal Justice Issues New York: Oppor. Agenda [Google Scholar]
  72. Owens ML. 2014. Ex-felons' organization-based political work for carceral reforms. Ann. Am. Acad. Polit. Soc. Sci. 651:1256–65 [Google Scholar]
  73. Page J. 2011. The Toughest Beat: Politics, Punishment, and the Prison Officers' Union in California Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press [Google Scholar]
  74. Petersilia J. 2003. When Prisoners Come Home: Parole and Prisoner Reentry Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press [Google Scholar]
  75. Petersilia J, Cullen FT. 2015. Liberal but not stupid: meeting the promise of downsizing prisons. Stanford J. Crim. Law Policy 2:11–62 [Google Scholar]
  76. Peterson RD, Krivo LJ. 2010. Divergent Social Worlds: Neighborhood Crime and the Racial-Spatial Divide New York: Russell Sage Found. [Google Scholar]
  77. Pew Cent. States. 2008. One in 100: Behind Bars in America in 2008 Philadelphia: Pew Charit. Trusts [Google Scholar]
  78. Pew Cent. States. 2012. Public Opinion on Sentencing and Corrections Policy in America Philadelphia: Pew Charit. Trusts [Google Scholar]
  79. Pew Charit. Trusts. 2009. Beyond California: States in Fiscal Peril Philadelphia: Pew Charit. Trusts [Google Scholar]
  80. Pew Charit. Trusts. 2014. States Project 3% Increase in Prisoners by 2018 Philadelphia: Pew Charit. Trusts [Google Scholar]
  81. Pfaff JF. 2015. The war on drugs and prison growth: limited importance, limited legislative options. Harvard J. Legis. 52:1173–220 [Google Scholar]
  82. Pfaff JF. 2016. The complicated economics of prison reform. Mich. Law Rev. 114:951–81 [Google Scholar]
  83. Phelps MS. 2013. The paradox of probation: community supervision in the age of mass incarceration. Law Policy 35:1–251–80 [Google Scholar]
  84. Phelps MS. 2016. Mass probation: toward a more robust theory of state variation in punishment. Punishm. Soc. In press [Google Scholar]
  85. Phelps MS, Pager D. 2016. Inequality and punishment: A turning point for mass incarceration?. Ann. Am. Acad. Polit. Soc. Sci. 663:1185–203 [Google Scholar]
  86. Porter ND. 2015. The State of Sentencing 2014: Developments in Policy and Practice Washington, DC: Sentencing Project [Google Scholar]
  87. Ramirez MD. 2013. Punitive sentiment. Criminology 51:2329–64 [Google Scholar]
  88. Rengifo AF, Stemen D. 2013. The impact of drug treatment on recidivism: Do mandatory programs make a difference? Evidence From Kansas's Senate Bill 123. Crime Delinq 59:6930–50 [Google Scholar]
  89. Rengifo AF, Stemen D, Dooley BD, Amidon E, Gendon A. 2010. Cents and sensibility: a case study of corrections reform in Kansas and Michigan. J. Crim. Justice 38:4419–29 [Google Scholar]
  90. Roeder O, Eisen L-B, Bowling J. 2015. What Caused the Crime Decline? New York: Brennan Cent. Justice [Google Scholar]
  91. Rothman DJ. 2002. Conscience and Convenience: The Asylum and Its Alternatives in Progressive America New York: Aldine de Gruyter. Rev, ed.. [Google Scholar]
  92. Ryan MJ. 2015. Science and the new rehabilitation. Va. J. Crim. Law 3:2261–341 [Google Scholar]
  93. Schept J. 2015. Progressive Punishment: Job Loss, Jail Growth and the Neoliberal Logic of Carceral Expansion New York: N.Y. Univ. Press [Google Scholar]
  94. Schlanger M. 2013. Plata v. Brown and realignment: jails, prisons, courts, and politics. Harvard Civ. Rights-Civ. Lib. Law Rev. 48:1165–215 [Google Scholar]
  95. Schoenfeld H. 2016. A research agenda on reform: penal policy and politics across the states. Ann. Am. Acad. Polit. Soc. Sci. 664:155–74 [Google Scholar]
  96. Scott-Hayward C. 2009. The Fiscal Crisis in Corrections: Rethinking Policies and Practices New York: Vera Inst. Justice [Google Scholar]
  97. Seeds C. 2015. Bifurcation nation: strategy in contemporary American punishment ID 2613083, Soc. Sci. Res. Netw., Rochester, NY [Google Scholar]
  98. Sentencing Project. 2015. U.S. Prison Population Trends: Broad Variation Among States in Recent Years. Washington, DC: Sentencing Project [Google Scholar]
  99. Simon J. 2007. Governing Through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press [Google Scholar]
  100. Simon J. 2014. Mass Incarceration on Trial: A Remarkable Court Decision and the Future of Prisons in America New York: New Press [Google Scholar]
  101. Steen S, Bandy R. 2007. When the policy becomes the problem: criminal justice in the new millennium. Punishm. Soc. 9:15–26 [Google Scholar]
  102. Steen S, Lacock T, McKinzey S. 2012. Unsettling the discourse of punishment? Competing narratives of reentry and the possibilities for change. Punishm. Soc. 14:129–50 [Google Scholar]
  103. Stemen D. 2007. Reconsidering Incarceration: New Directions for Reducing Crime New York: Vera Inst. Justice [Google Scholar]
  104. Takei C. 2016. From mass incarceration to mass control, and back again: how bipartisan criminal justice reform may lead to a for-profit nightmare. Univ. Pa. J. Law Soc. Change 20: In press [Google Scholar]
  105. Taxman FS. 2012. Probation, intermediate sanctions, and community-based corrections. The Oxford Handbook of Sentencing and Corrections363–85 Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press [Google Scholar]
  106. Thielo AJ, Cullen FT, Cohen DM, Chouhy C. 2015. Rehabilitation in a red state. Criminol. Public Policy 15:137–70 [Google Scholar]
  107. Tiger R. 2012. Judging Addicts: Drug Courts and Coercion in the Justice System New York: N.Y. Univ. Press [Google Scholar]
  108. Tonry MH. 1995. Malign Neglect: Race, Crime, and Punishment in America Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press [Google Scholar]
  109. Tonry MH. 2004. Thinking about Crime: Sense and Sensibility in American Penal Culture Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press [Google Scholar]
  110. Tonry M. 2011. Making peace, not a desert. Criminol. Public Policy 10:3637–49 [Google Scholar]
  111. Travis J. 2005. But They All Come Back: Facing the Challenges of Prisoner Reentry Washington, DC: Urban Inst. Press, 1st ed.. [Google Scholar]
  112. Travis J, Western B, Redburn S. 2014. The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences Washington, DC: Natl. Acad. Press [Google Scholar]
  113. Turner SF, Davis LM, Fain T, Braithwaite H, Lavery T. et al. 2015. A national picture of prison downsizing strategies. Vict. Offenders 10:4401–19 [Google Scholar]
  114. Vera Inst. Justice. 2013. The Potential of Community Corrections to Improve Safety and Reduce Incarceration. New York: Vera Inst. Justice [Google Scholar]
  115. Vera Inst. Justice. 2014. Playbook for Change? States Reconsider Mandatory Sentences. New York: Vera Inst. Justice [Google Scholar]
  116. Vera Inst. Justice. 2015. Incarceration's Front Door: The Misuse of Jails in America New York: Vera Inst. Justice [Google Scholar]
  117. Verma A. 2015. The law-before: legacies and gaps in penal reform. Law Soc. Rev. 49:4847–82 [Google Scholar]
  118. Verma A. 2016. A turning point in mass incarceration? Local imprisonment trajectories and decarceration under California's realignment. Ann. Am. Acad. Polit. Soc. Sci. 664:1108–35 [Google Scholar]
  119. Vieraitis LM, Kovandzic TV, Marvell TB. 2007. The criminogenic effects of imprisonment: evidence from State Panel Data, 1974–2002. Criminol. Public Policy 63589–622 [Google Scholar]
  120. Vigne NGL, Bieler S, Cramer L, Ho H, Kotonias C. et al. 2014. Justice Reinvestment Initiative State Assessment Report. Washington, DC: Urban Inst.
  121. Weisberg R, Petersilia J. 2010. The dangers of pyrrhic victories against mass incarceration. Daedalus 139:3124–33 [Google Scholar]
  122. Western B. 2006. Punishment and Inequality in America New York: Russell Sage Found. [Google Scholar]
  123. Wool J, Stemen D. 2004. Changing fortunes or changing attitudes? Sentencing and corrections reforms in 2003. New York: Vera Inst. Justice
  124. Zimring FE. 2008. The Great American Crime Decline Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press [Google Scholar]
  • Article Type: Review Article
This is a required field
Please enter a valid email address
Approval was a Success
Invalid data
An Error Occurred
Approval was partially successful, following selected items could not be processed due to error