Chaired by Professor Ian Loader

In this lecture I discuss the exercise of penal power in contemporary America with a view to explaining its historical causes, contemporary functions, specific forms and social foundations. I begin with a critical discussion of current characterizations of the system – ‘Mass incarceration’, ‘Harsh Justice’ ‘the New Jim Crow,’ ‘the Carceral state’ etc. – and then outline an alternative description of the system’s nature and emergence. I argue that the system’s fundamental, universal emphasis is not degradation, retribution, racial caste-making or neo-liberal discipline but instead the imposition of penal controls and I go on to discuss the social and political roots of that commitment. Re-connecting penal controls with patterns of crime and violence, I highlight the deficits of social control and social capital that affect certain American institutions as well as the limited capacities and patterned dispositions of the American state. I conclude with some observations about the use of penal power as a form of government and of social control.

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