Archive for April, 2009

Symposium on The Problem of Punishment: Race, Inequailty, and Justice

Monday, April 13th, 2009

Upcoming symposium sponsored by the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies – The Problem of Punishment: Race, Inequality, and Justice on April 16 & 17, 2009. Keynote address by Angela Y. Davis, all events free and open to the public.

Organized by faculty members in the Departments of English (Deborah McDowell), History (Claudrena Harold) and Politics (Vesla Weaver), this multi-disciplinary symposium, sponsored by the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies, will examine the historical, political, economic, and socio-cultural roots, as well as the myriad implications of the rise in incarceration in the United States. We briefly summarize the goals for the symposium and review crucial developments that serve as its motivation.

Due largely to several important policy changes connected to the “War on Crime” and the “War on Drugs,” the prison population has climbed steeply since the 1970s, an escalation resulting in the following developments:

The State of the Justice System

  • The United States is the world’s leader in incarceration and death row inmates, holding 25% of the world’s prison population but only 5% of the world’s people.
  • Since 1973, incarceration rates have risen by a factor of six, even as crime statistics have fallen. There are now three times as many offenders released each year as compared to the entire prison population in 1973.
  • The prison industry is one of the most rapidly growing industries in the United States, now employing more than Wal-Mart, General Motors, and Ford combined.
  • Allocations for criminal justice have quadrupled over the past four decades. State spending on corrections doubled over the past two decades. Criminal justice has become a major source of government funds, absorbing an ever increasing share of public resources. Today, government contributes more to criminal justice than to all income maintenance and unemployment expenditures combined.
  • The criminal justice system represents a new racial cleavage in America. In stark contrast to the watershed political gains blacks made in the decades since the zenith of the civil rights movement, prison has become a normal part of life for one in three black men in their twenties. While African Americans constitute 12.4 percent of the population, they comprise more than half of all prison inmates. A mere two decades ago they comprised one-third of the inmate population.

The trends outlined above were hastened by major policy changes affecting the ways in which the criminal justice system dealt with offenders before, during, and after sentencing. Punitive policies like mandatory minimums were passed largely without public debate. But while these statistics and the policy changes that led to their acceleration are among the most shocking developments in modern history, at best they have received uneven scholarly attention; at worst, they are routinely neglected in many fields: political science, economics, and psychology.

The Aim of the Symposium

The aim of this symposium, therefore, is to promote a serious, informed dialogue that will contribute to a growing national debate on the growth of the carceral state. We envision an intimate symposium featuring experts across the disciplines as well as policy practitioners. We will convene on the first day of the symposium with two panels focusing specifically on exploring the causes of the growth of the carceral state and growing racial disparities within it. The opening panel will consider the theoretical and historical foundations of rising imprisonment and shifting policy choices. The second will explore the politics of punishment and race. Following this session Angela Davis (author most recently of Abolition Democracy: Beyond Prisons, Torture, and Empire and Are Prisons Obsolete?) will deliver a keynote address. On Friday, April 17, we will shift our attention to research that evaluates the consequences and implications of the rise in imprisonment. In these three panels, scholars will focus on the myriad implications of rising prison rates for forms of economic, social, and political exclusion in the United States.