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Prison Nation - Public Administration Review 2006

Public Administration Review, Jan. 1, 2006.
Book Review - Prison Nation - Public Administration Review 2006

Public Administration Review

July 2006 / August 2006
Volume 66, Issue 4, Pages 644-646

Compilation review of:

Crime Control and Social Justice: The Delicate Balance edited by Darnell F. Hawkins, Samuel L. Myers, Randolph N. Stone
Greenwood Press, Westport, CT, 2003
Pages: 504. $91.95

Prison Nation: The Warehousing of America's Poor by Tara Herivel, Paul Wright
Routledge, New York and London, 2003
Pages: 332. $22.95

Downsizing Prisons: How to Reduce Crime and End Mass Incarceration by Michael Jacobson
New York University Press, New York, 2005
Pages: 304. $29.95

Cruel and Unusual: Punishment and U.S. Culture by Brian Jarvis
Pluto Press, London, 2004
Pages: 304. $24.95

The Challenge of Crime: Rethinking Our Response by Henry Ruth, Devin R. Reitz
Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2003
Pages: 384. $35.00

Thinking about Crime: Sense and Sensibility in American Penal Culture by Michael Tonry
Oxford University Press, New York, 2004
Pages: 272. $30.00

Reviewed by: John Rouse

Book Reviews: Crime and Punishment in America

Certain subjects, as the old saying goes, concentrate the mind wonderfully. Crime and punishment evoke primeval fears of disorder, ideas of retribution and vengeance, and sadistic impulses. For the social scientist, they epitomize such issues as social control, deviance, and social engineering. Politically, crime and punishment symbolize the sharp divide between the extreme left, which sees crime as a consequence of poverty and inequality, and the conservative right, which believes crime is committed by miscreants who can only be deterred by stiff penalties. Arguments about social justice, moral responsibility, and the right of the community to discipline its members go back to the beginning of history, and they remain unresolved in our time.

Crime and punishment are not pleasant subjects. Like the sewers beneath our cities, most of us would prefer neither to think about nor to deal with them. But the extent of crime in a society, and the ways in which a society acts to contain, prevent, or react to it, constitute a kind of social barometer, a measure of its other institutions and attitudes toward the basic elements of its fabric-family and kinship, racial and religious tolerance, the care and socialization of children, urban design, and economic incentives and opportunities. Thus, we should all be concerned that in the United States today, at any one time, more than 2 million people are to be found behind bars, and an even larger number have been victims of crime.

In this situation, arguments about fundamentals are overwhelmed by myriad practicalities that make up what is euphemistically called the "criminal justice" system. This is the domain of public administrators: lawyers (75 percent of criminal defendants are indigent and rely on court-ordered representation), police officers, judges, court administrators, social workers, prison officers, and parole supervisors. It is a world of specialized vocabulary, procedures, processes, distinctions, and bureaucratic orderings that overlay a more brutal world of danger, helplessness, and incipient violence. No one person or institution controls this world: It seems to move of its own volition through millions of apparently unrelated decisions on individual cases. How, then, can it-or does it-change?

The books included in this review all deal in some way with changes, past and future, to the way crime and punishment are dealt with in the United States. They are of particular interest to public administrators because they are the people who have to pick up the pieces, either directly through their participation in the criminal justice system or indirectly as they deal with the consequences for budgets, governments, communities, and families.

Each of the books, in its way, stakes out a position. Crime Control and Social Justice: The Delicate Balance, as its title suggests, approaches the subject from the perspective of social justice. The 17 readings explore crime control and reduction measures and issues of basic rights, and they document the contribution of socioeconomic inequality to disparate crime rates. The book's first part analyzes the consequences of public policies on incarceration, sentencing practices, and "three strikes" statutes for families and high-risk youth. The second part sheds light on the shadowy territory of gangs, drugs, race, and public attitudes. The final part raises criminology to the level of moral philosophy: It is concerned with the social construction of reality, particularly the definition of crime, the argument between rehabilitation and punishment of criminals, and the place of race. The editors argue "that the 'get tough on crime' policies enacted in the United States during the last three decades of the twentieth century pose a significant challenge to the nation's ongoing struggle for social justice and human and civil rights" (vii). This book is a comprehensive desk reference for examining society's needs and efforts to protect its members from crime.

In Cruel and Unusual: Punishment and U.S. Culture, Brian Jarvis takes this argument much further in his history of punishment. His Marxist assumption is that this history is determined by relations between rich and poor. He traces attitudes toward punishment in American culture to the Puritans, whose dominant penal style, he contends, made no distinctions between man-made laws and God's law. He develops these dominant themes through a cultural history of diverse experiences and events-African American experiences and the barbarism of slavery, Herman Melville's representation of punishment, the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and American prison films. Chapter by chapter, this book is a very good read, and it contributes a different dimension of understanding to punishment for profit and social control.

Prison Nation: The Warehousing of America's Poor, by Tara Herivel and Paul Wright, starts from much the same premise and makes the same link between poverty, criminality, and incarceration. This collection of case studies and insights addresses the political economy of prisons. It is written by prisoners, social critics, and investigative reporters. The first section of the book makes the argument that prisons warehouse the poor of America. But much of the book's interest lies in the authors' analysis of what goes on inside prisons and their more recent conversion into a thriving industry. The second section explores the impact of the prison industries on communities. Local chamber of commerce groups and Save Our Jobs committees welcome an industry that brings a payroll of $57-$70 million, 1,200 new jobs, and anywhere from 3,500 to 4,000 new residents. In this way, the authors conclude, small governments, big corporations, and big prisons feed on the ills of poverty, unemployment, inadequate education, and racism.

Their case is buttressed by subsequent sections of the book, which document the politics of prison labor and the private prison industry. Private prisons house nearly 5 percent of the prison and jail populations, and their number has grown from 5 to 150 within the last 20 years. The authors document "malign neglect" in prison medicine. Most of the people in prison have used drugs and alcohol, and others are the victims of sexual, emotional, and physical abuse. Stress is omnipresent. The final sections address the terror among inmates and the brutality within prison walls, as well as the history of prison law; the authors allege that the due process is more an ideal than a reality.

Perhaps you didn't really want to know all this. But Michael Jacobson, in Downsizing Prisons: How to Reduce Crime and End Mass Incarceration, makes the case for reform from the hard-nosed perspective of commissioner of probation for New York City. His is a commonsense call for change, and his arguments and recommendations are based on the experience of New York City, which managed to reduce crime while simultaneously reducing its use of prisons. He argues that the expansion of incarceration rates over the last 30 years needs to be reversed. Warehousing prisoners is expensive. Polls suggest that public attitudes toward crime and criminal justice have shifted, enabling reforms through legislative and policy-making channels. The time is ripe for a change in social policy.

Jacobson draws attention to striking increases in the number of parolees who are returned to prison on technical violations and how this practice drives the cost and size of the current prison system. He recommends structural reforms to the way states operate probation and parole systems. He notes that "[a]lmost everyone who goes to prison comes out of prison" (131) and castigates the current parole system for its failure to prevent recidivism and reincarceration, which should be its aims. He has no illusions regarding opposition to prison reforms. He cites the politics of punishment, the role of private prisons, the role of corrections unions, the promotion of prisons as economic development strategies, and the "realities" of the budget process. Nonetheless, he argues that prison growth does not substantially reduce crime.

Downsizing Prisons is an excellent, well-documented, and well-referenced case study. Jacobson is a seasoned policy practitioner who understands the fit of partisan, policy, and system politics. He has hands-on experience, understands what works, and knows first-hand the dysfunctional impacts of higher incarceration rates. He argues for more rational and effective cost-control approaches to crime control.

Henry Ruth and Kevin Reitz arrive at much the same conclusion in The Challenge of Crime: Rethinking Our Response. They document the development of current modes of punishment and control, explaining their justification and their consequences as crime-response agencies have expanded into massive uncoordinated bureaucracies. Unlike some of the other books reviewed here, Ruth and Reitz do not start with the assumption that the criminal justice system is a simple representation of society's bias against the poor. Instead, they carefully examine the complex premises put forth by advocates of conservative reforms in the mid-1970s. A national crime commission, convened by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967, had embraced the decreased use of prisons, rehabilitation of offenders, and increased commitment to building life opportunities for the nation's most disadvantaged citizens (see President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice 1967). The rejection of that report marked a change to newer, more punitive policies. Its leading proponent was James Q. Wilson, whose 1975 book, Thinking about Crime, preached to the public that a new and more punitive crime policy was morally the right path for the nation. ...[A]dult and juvenile criminals were no longer the deprived have-nots of the rehabilitation era. Poverty did not cause crime; youthful and adult criminals chose crime because it was easier and more profitable than working. Raising punitive costs through long-term prison sentences quickly became the eagerly received Wilsonian message. (4)

Wilson was no muddled liberal. Ruth and Reitz argue that Wilson was "a hard-boiled realist whose judgment was unclouded by sentimentality. Compassion for offenders served as neither a starting point nor an end goal of his analysis. Hardened criminals could not be deterred by increased penalties. Such persons were conceived as truly evil, and society had little choice but to separate them from the community through long-term prison sentences" (82). The chapters in the book apply this reasoning to guns, crime, crime-gun regulation, and juvenile crime.

Ruth and Reitz believe, however, that good management principles are seldom applied to crime response in America. They identify five goals that should be (but are not being) achieved: to reduce the amount of crime; to confront the debilitative presence of fear; to ensure justice for victims and offenders; to promote broad faith in the moral legitimacy of the crime response complex; and to define the proper scope of the crime response itself. They conclude that although the conservative era has shown remarkable staying power, it cannot continue in the same direction, and significant changes are all but inevitable (67).

The final book in this group, Michael Tonry's Thinking about Crime: Sense and Sensibility in American Penal Culture, explains "how contemporary American crime policies came to be as they are, and how they can be reconfigured to be made more effective" (vii). He includes in his analysis crime rates and trends, public opinion, partisan politics, and political reconfiguration. He documents such matters as disproportionate penalties, preventive detention, and prosecutorial sentence appeals. But the book digs much deeper into the role of criminal law and punishment in society and its place in the promotion of moral values. He is concerned with such phenomena as prevailing sensibilities, short-term passions and emotions, prevailing norms, ethical introspection, and contemporary Western values and practices.

This is a book that holds us up to a mirror so that we can reflect on what we are. If readers of this journal have but one book to devote to "thinking about crime," this is it. Tonry's Thinking about Crime is easily read, clearly stated, succinct, full of good common sense, timely, a treatise of hope, and a primer for policy making.

What may be learned from these books? The overwhelming conclusion is that the time is ripe for change. The theories of crime and crime policies of the 1970s have become entrenched in bureaucracies and in a growing private industry that now represents an overwhelming financial and practical burden. Whatever the division of opinion on the nature of crime and punishment, it is becoming increasingly evident that current criminal justice and prison policies cost taxpayers far too many dollars, not even counting the "collateral damage" of ruined lives, economic losses, and prevailing fear and insecurity. The revolving door of parole violations, reconvictions, and reincarcerations is one indication of the prison system's ineffectiveness; meanwhile, warehousing the dysfunctional members of society is expensive and probably ineffective.

Though broader societal solutions for reducing crime might require radical and controversial policies, the prison system itself is a clear target for direct reform. It seems only reasonable to prepare inmates for their release, in which case correctional institutions should also be viewed as education centers. Because those in charge of them are public administrators (even in a delegated sense in private prisons), it seems appropriate that the public administration community play a part in encouraging research and development in this area.


Presidents Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice. 1967. Task Force Report: Crime and Its Impact-An Assessment. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

John Rouse

Ball State University

John Rouse is a professor of political science at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. He teaches public administration and American government at Pendleton Reformatory, a maximum-security Indiana prison. He is the principal author of The Craft of Public Administration (9th ed., McGraw-Hill, 2004).

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