Thursday, June 4, 2015

Teaching Notes: The Evolution of My Punishment and Society Syllabus

(From time to time, dedicated or guest bloggers might write about teaching issues relevant to P&S scholars and teachers. This is one such post.)

This fall, I teach my (undergraduate) punishment and society class for the fourth time. It will be the first time that I consider the decline of the “severity revolution,” mass incarceration, the war on crime, etc. This post explores the process of making that change---after the jump.


My punishment and society class grew out of my exposure to various iterations of Jonathan Simon’s Punishment, Culture, and Society (UC Berkeley Legal Studies) class that I had the good fortune to sit in on several times (first as an undergrad and later as a graduate teaching assistant). He thus had a heavy influence on my approach, but I think I've succeeded in creating my own version. My first iteration of P&S was a summer session class; consequently, I wanted to follow a simple framework. While Jonathan included a hefty dose of classic social theories of punishment---Durkheim, Marx, Weber, Foucault, Elias---I did not want to try such a feat in a mere six weeks. Instead, the class had three parts, each focusing on a primary question:

I. Comparative—What was punishment like in the old days and what is it like today around the world, especially in our western sister nations? This was a short set of lectures to orient the class. So many of my students do not come into the class with the knowledge that how we punish today (or at least in the 90s) is new or sufficiently different from how we punished in the 60s (or 20s or 19th century) to merit comment. 

II. Definitional or Descriptive—What do we mean by the Severity Revolution? This was, in many ways, the heart of the class. It was a tour of the various innovations or trends of the last thirty—now forty—years, from changes in the scale and experience of prison, changes in the death penalty, legislative changes and targeted kinds of criminals (drug and sex), the new penology, etc. I also taught several classes on prison sociology and collateral consequences. And I included a discussion about whether the severity revolution really exists or if the “break with the past” arguments are exaggerated, drawing on some of the post-O’Malley work of the 2000s.)

III. Explanatory—What explains the Severity Revolution? This is the really exciting part of the class: another whirlwind tour, this time of the political, economic/racial/class, public opinion, cultural, historical, and other explanations, starting with a discussion of how crime played a role, and disabusing my students of the notion that mass incarceration was the direct result of a crime increase. In the end, the pre-announced final exam question asked students to formulate their own answer to the question of what caused the severity revolution, drawing on at least two of the theories we’d discussed in the last third of the class.

As I transitioned to semester teaching, I kept the basic framework of the course with some minor tweaks. In the biggest change, I expanded my discussion of collateral consequences (racially bifurcated consequences for the life course, felon disenfranchisement, post-prison employment chances, effects on families and neighborhoods, the effect on the middle class, the effect on correctional officers). This is now its own unit, and I’ve shrunk my definitional/descriptive section to accommodate it. This fall, I’m adding another unit: The Severity Revolution’s Decline.


Over the last two years teaching this class, I’ve faced an uncomfortable challenge. Policies, opinions, and practices that were widespread when I first designed the class in 2011 were less dominant. I couldn’t use “today” or “now” to describe trends we’d experienced for decades because, at least for some trends, things had changed or were changing. During the third iteration of the course, I explained that we would be focusing on punishment to approximately 2010. I explained that things were changing, but we weren’t quite sure what direction they were heading. I was aware of some calls for rehabilitation from the early 2000s that offered a counter trend, but I mostly addressed these in the “Is it Real” lectures/discussion, where we examine the contradictory nature of penal trends in the post-modern era (for those who agree: break with the past) or late-modern era (if you think there is more continuity). But I wasn’t yet sure how to address what increasingly looks like a possible change in direction.

This fall, I have a plan for addressing them. Hadar Aviram’s new book, Cheap on Crime, is actually what helped it click for me. To be fair to other authors, there are several earlier books that (had I read them in a timely fashion…) would have been useful resources. But it was Hadar’s book that did it for me. Hadar offers a great account of how the recession enabled or encouraged the move away from tough-on-crime politics of the 80s and 90s, basically allowing politicians, policymakers, and others a legitimate argument for why we should divest ourselves of these policies without getting slammed for an otherwise soft-on-crime stance. Tough on crime might not be over, but people are at least reconsidering their options, and the fiscal argument has been a major rallying cry.

I began to count off how many books had come out recently discussing “the end.” Simon, Frampton, and Haney-Lopez edited After the War on Crime back in 2008. Clear and Frost wrote in 2013 of “The Beginning of the End of Mass Imprisonment.” Simon just published Mass Incarcerationon Trial. There are enough works now that we have a scholarly critical mass that not only recognizes a shift in direction (it’s still too early to say if it will stick, but we all seem to agree that something has to change), but also to theorize why it is happening.

So, for the first time, I’m going to have a dedicated unit for discussing the decline of the “Severity Revolution.” (I should mention that we also debate whether that phrase is useful or not. It is a surprisingly lively discussion.) I’ve not yet revised my syllabus. One idea—for now—is to compare Aviram and Simon’s books. They are actually quite well paired, offering different views of human nature and thus different theories of penal practice. Simon argues that dignity should be the basis of any prison reforms we carry out, and that it just might catch on, given some key phrases in the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Plata. For Aviram, it’s not all about the money, but it’s close. She notes how the fiscal arguments sometimes aid humanitarian goals, and sometimes derail them. One area for student discussion might be which tactic the students think will be more powerful in fomenting change in the common years.


As I think through revising my syllabus, I’ll post some more ideas. In the meantime, are there other books or articles I should be considering? Are any of you addressing this issue—or maybe you see another important area of concern on the horizon? Post your thoughts to the comments section or to our Facebook page.

Update: A new version of this article adds a "jump" feature.

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