The proper role for the social scientist in discussions of social policy is not self-evident because the most challenging policy problems are not merely technical. Nor is policy discourse only instrumental; it is also expressive and constitutive. It sets an agenda for action, frames key moral judgments of a citizenry, marks the boundary between civic and communal responsibility, conveys a narrative of justification, and establishes the significance of a nation’s history for its present-day course of public action. Whether intended or not, public debate over the most basic issues (implicitly) answers the question, what manner of people are we Americans? This outcome is surely true for public debate about what may be the preeminent domestic policy issue of our time: that mass incarceration is now, de facto, a central element of American social policy.
The essays gathered in this issue of Dædalus explore the empirical contours, the political underpinnings, and the prospects for reform of America’s incarceration complex. They exemplify the potential for the social sciences to contribute usefully to a crucial public debate. The authors come from varied disciplines– criminology, sociology, political science, economics, and law–and reflect differing ideological predispositions. However, all hold the common conviction that this newly emergent punishment regime constitutes a formation of fundamental significance for American society; that its roots in the political culture are varied and intricate; and that there is no easy or straightforward path out of the policy fix that we have gotten ourselves into.
The empirical contours of American incarceration are assessed in the four pieces that begin this issue. Bruce Western of Harvard University and Becky Pettit of the University of Washington examine the class and racial dimensions of incarceration and its impact on social inequality. Robert J. Sampson and Charles Loeffler, both of Harvard University, look at data on the spatial concentration of imprisonment in the large American city of Chicago. Two subsequent essays focus on particular subsectors of the prison universe: Candace Kruttschnitt of the University of Toronto surveys the social context of women’s imprisonment; Jeffrey Fagan of Columbia University reviews the current state of juvenile incarceration in the United States. Following this assessment of the basic facts, the issue turns to the political underpinnings of America’s incarceration policies. . . .