America is the most punitive nation in the world: we incarcerate the largest number of individuals and at the highest rate. American criminal justice policies of such punitive excess and unequal protection under the law have been shaped by and sustain racial inequality and exclusion and add to the harsh conditions of American poverty.
The Winter 2022 issue of Dædalus on “Reimagining Justice: The Challenges of Violence & Punitive Excess,” guest edited by Bruce Western, is the result of two Square One Project roundtable meetings convened to discuss violence, criminalization, punitive excess, the courts, and the question of justice in America. This collection’s authors – from academia, advocacy, and the justice system – ask how police, courts, and prisons in the United States can be transformed to eliminate mass incarceration and produce a new kind of community safety that strengthens social bonds and reckons with a history of racial injustice.
American history is marked by collective and political violence, and Kellie Carter Jackson, in her contribution to this volume, looks to such violent events to track social change and identify turning points in history. She argues that the historic meaning of violence has depended on who is being victimized: violence committed by White men, for example, is often seen as necessary or even heroic, while upstart violence committed by oppressed people is seen as threatening the social order, thus demanding state repression. Paul Butler, in his essay, takes on the challenge of reckoning with violence committed by the state through policing and incarceration. He looks at the role of anti-Blackness in state violence and considers what harm reduction programs might look like.
Of course, it is impossible to fully consider the question of violence in America without considering the significant role of guns. David Hureau, in his essay, argues that guns and gun policy are central to understanding racial inequalities in neighborhood violence. He shows that guns in low-income neighborhoods are not a measure of criminality, but are mechanisms of lethality in contexts of poverty and racial exclusion where safety is elusive and where police are unreliable defenders of the well-being of Black youth. Daniel Webster also challenges the usual criminal justice perspective toward gun violence, instead taking a data-driven public health approach to review gun policy initiatives that have significantly reduced gun violence in cities across America, including rigorous licensing, community and youth outreach, and reducing concentrated poverty and urban blight.
The trauma of violence echoes through the lives of those who experience it and can be passed from one generation to the next. Micere Keels considers how growing up with a chronic lack of safety changes brain chemistry, behavior, and subjective experience. She argues that the response to violence should go beyond punishment of the offender to attend also to the harms of victimization. Beth Richie similarly shifts the focus toward those victimized – in this case, African American women who have experienced violence – instead of focusing on the young male perpetrators that often dominate criminal justice policy discussions. She outlines a conceptual matrix for understanding violent victimization, which forms the basis of a justice policy that acknowledges the nature of violence as both racialized and gendered. Barbara Jones, in her contribution, draws from personal experience both as a community dispute resolution specialist and as a survivor of homicide that took the life of her child. She describes a restorative justice process that offers a pathway to healing for victims, rather than a sole focus on punishment for those who have harmed others.
American violence often happens in a context of racial exclusion and deep economic disadvantage. Police, courts, and prisons are charged with the work of responding to interpersonal violence, but they too are part of a landscape that includes centuries of White supremacy and a harsh kind of poverty that is largely unknown in other developed economies. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, in his essay, considers the history of criminalization in America, describing the process by which conduct becomes classified by authorities as criminal and thus deserving of punishment, and showing how defining “criminals” has been closely connected to projects of maintaining White supremacy. Jennifer Chacón’s contribution follows a similar thread to consider how immigration and immigrants have been rendered as suspect and threatening and deserving of punishment. And Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, in her essay, describes what she calls “racial degradation ceremonies,” in which court discretion, used by mostly White courtroom professionals, is often dehumanizing both for defendants navigating the court process and for family and friends. She confronts the resistance to cultural change in the courts and suggests how accountability and oversight might be developed.
In his essay, Geoff Ward asks us to take account of the history of criminalization and punitive excess and the ways these are deployed by the state, and to grapple with the daunting undertaking of reimagining and reorganizing justice in order to reconstruct society. And in the issue’s final essay, Jonathan Simon offers a three-part values-based framework for reshaping society, nominating human dignity as a central value that can guide criminal justice reform, so we do not miss the present opportunity for reckoning and repair.
Taken together, this collection demands that we imagine a different kind of public safety that relies not on police and prisons, but on a rich community life that has eliminated racism, poverty, and their myriad accompanying social problems. Many of the solutions will lie well beyond the boundaries of the criminal justice system and public policy. Yet much of the work is already being done in communities around the country. These efforts share, as the essays in this issue suggest, a common commitment to the values of healing, reconciliation, and human dignity.
The Winter 2022 issue of Dædalus on “Reimagining Justice: The Challenges of Violence & Punitive Excess” features the following essays:
Violence, Criminalization & Punitive Excess
Bruce Western (Academy Member; Columbia University) & Sukyi McMahon (Square One Project)
The Story of Violence in America
Kellie Carter Jackson (Wellesley College)
The Problem of State Violence
Paul Butler (Georgetown University)
Public Health Approaches to Reducing Community Gun Violence
Daniel W. Webster (Johns Hopkins University)
Seeing Guns to See Urban Violence: Racial Inequality & Neighborhood Context
David M. Hureau (University at Albany–SUNY)
Developmental & Ecological Perspective on the Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma & Violence
Micere Keels (University of Chicago)
The Effects of Violence on Communities: The Violence Matrix as a Tool for Advancing More Just Policies
Beth E. Richie (University of Illinois at Chicago)
Faces of the Aftermath of Visible & Invisible Violence & Loss: Radical Resiliency of Justice & Healing
Barbara L. Jones (Wayne State University)
The Foundational Lawlessness of the Law Itself: Racial Criminalization & the Punitive Roots of Punishment in America
Khalil Gibran Muhammad (Harvard University)
Criminal Law & Migration Control: Recent History & Future Possibilities
Jennifer M. Chacón (University of California, Berkeley)
Due Process & the Theater of Racial Degradation: The Evolving Notion of Pretrial Punishment in the Criminal Courts
Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve (Brown University; Harvard University)
Recognition, Repair & the Reconstruction of “Square One”
Geoff K. Ward (Washington University in St. Louis)
Knowing What We Want: A Decent Society, A Civilized System of Justice & A Condition of Dignity
Jonathan Simon (University of California, Berkeley)
“Reimagining Justice: The Challenges of Violence & Punitive Excess” is available on the Academy’s website. Dædalus is an open access publication.
Fall 2021 Issue of Dædalus: “Water Security in Africa in the Age of Global Climate Change”
Africa is at the center of the global water predicament and climate change upheaval: The continent contains the greatest number of least-developed countries, the most woeful sanitation infrastructure, and the highest share of people in highly weather-dependent rural employment. Due to global warming, crop yields are expected to decline sharply, and sea-level rises along the African littoral are already higher than average.
The Fall 2021 issue of Dædalus features authors from Africa and the Global North who explore policy debates and conflicts over water use as well as the efforts to mitigate these tensions. The essays focus on four dimensions of the water crises facing the African continent: 1) the increasing scarcity, privatization, and commodification of water in urban centers; 2) the impact of large dams on the countryside; 3) the health and sociopolitical consequences of water shortages; and 4) water governance and the politics of water at the local, national, and transnational levels. The contributors share the concern that without commitments to creating more equitable access to water, the effects of water insecurity will continue to be devastating.
The issue, guest edited by Allen Isaacman, Muchaparara Musemwa, and Harry Verhoeven, is available online.