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A Brief History of America's Penal Philosophy
Prisoner
Comment
December 28, 2007

In this week's JOURNAL, Thomas Cahill argues that our criminal justice system is unjust because "there are certain people in our society that we are willing to offer up. And not others."

How did our criminal justice system arrive at its present state?

America's first prison was founded by Pennsylvania Quakers in 1790. Appalled by the brutality that had defined European dungeons and jails, the Quakers envisioned a true penitentiary - a peaceful (if compulsory) sanctum where offenders could study the scriptures, repent, and reenter society as rescued, reformed, and pious citizens. Appealing both to the nation's narrative of religious redemption and to its faith in the "noble savage," this general philosophy of truly "correctional" facilities was the ideal - if rarely the reality - of American prisons throughout the first half of the nineteenth century.

A substantial crime wave after the Civil War disrupted what scholars have termed "the rehabilitative ideal." Amidst rhetoric and arguments that foreshadowed later politicians' efforts to be "tough on crime," the tide of public opinion temporarily turned to favoring retributive punishment. With an eventual decline in crime rates, however, these attitudes softened and rehabilitation again became the public's dominant intended goal for the criminal justice system.

In the latter decades of the nineteenth century, the rehabilitative mantle shifted from redeeming sinners to ideas based in the Progressive Era's faith in the social sciences: using targeted and rational therapy to 'fix' offenders who had been 'damaged' by poverty and other social ills. It was this foundation upon which academic criminology and the modern criminal justice system were built - at least for most of the twentieth century.

In the early 1970s, the primacy of rehabilitation came under siege from two distinct angles, both of which disputed the notion that criminals were 'malfunctioning' as the result of negative social conditions. On one hand, a group of academics argued that many offenders - especially members of minority groups - were justifiably rebelling against an oppressive society, and that rehabilitation represented an Orwellian attempt to impose bourgeois values on potential revolutionaries. On the other, a growing group of criminologists noted that rehabilitation programs tended to have little effect on recidivism rates and argued that offenders were rational actors whom the criminal justice system should be designed to deter.

Although support for rehabilitation programs remains high for non-violent offenders, poll results since the 1980s suggest that most Americans no longer see rehabilitation itself as the main purpose of the criminal justice system. Indeed, many states now have minimum sentencing laws mandating certain punishments no matter what the circumstances of the crime. Scholars have suggested that this "decline of the rehabilitative ideal" can be ascribed to opportunistic politicians using crime as a wedge issue to win elections, sensationalized accounts of violent crime in the media, increased perception that the social order is crumbling, and the identification of crime with racial minorities, among other factors.

RECOMMENDED READING:

Allen, Francis. The Decline of the Rehabilitative Ideal. Yale University Press, 1981.

Wilson, James Q. Thinking About Crime. Basic Books, 1975.

Garland, David. The Culture of Control. University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Published on December 28, 2007

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