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Why stigmatizing and confining a large segment of our population should be unacceptable to all Americans.
The United States, home to five percent of the world's population, now houses twenty-five percent of the world's prison inmates. Our incarceration rate—at 714 per 100,000 residents and rising—is almost forty percent greater than our nearest competitors (the Bahamas, Belarus, and Russia). More pointedly, it is 6.2 times the Canadian rate and 12.3 times the rate in Japan. Economist Glenn Loury argues that this extraordinary mass incarceration is not a response to rising crime rates or a proud success of social policy. Instead, it is the product of a generation-old collective decision to become a more punitive society. He connects this policy to our history of racial oppression, showing that the punitive turn in American politics and culture emerged in the post-civil rights years and has today become the main vehicle for the reproduction of racial hierarchies. Whatever the explanation, Loury argues, the uncontroversial fact is that changes in our criminal justice system since the 1970s have created a nether class of Americans—vastly disproportionately black and brown—with severely restricted rights and life chances. Moreover, conservatives and liberals agree that the growth in our prison population has long passed the point of diminishing returns. Stigmatizing and confining of a large segment of our population should be unacceptable to Americans. Loury's call to action makes all of us now responsible for ensuring that the policy changes.
In this pithy discussion, renowned scholars debate the American penal system through the lens and as a legacy of an "ugly and violent" racial past. Economist Loury argues that incarceration rises even as crime rates fall because "we have become increasingly punitive." According to Loury, the "disproportionately black and brown" prison populations are the victims of civil rights "opponents" who successfully moved the country's race dialogue to a "seemingly race-neutral concern over crime." Loury's claims are well-supported with genuinely shocking statistics, and his argument is compelling that "even if the racial argument about causes is inconclusive, the racial consequences are clear." Three shorter essays respond: Stanford law professor Karlan examines prisoners as an "inert ballast" in redistricting and voting practices; French sociologist Wacquant argues that the focus on race has "ignored the fact that inmates are first and foremost poor people"; and Harvard philosophy professor Shelby urges citizens to "break with Washington's political outlook on race." The group's respectful sparring results in an insightful look at the conflicting theories of race and incarceration, and the slim volume keeps up the pace of the argument without being overwhelming.