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The End of an Era? Understanding the Contradictions of Criminal Justice Reform

March 2016

From The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science:

Recent drops in the U.S. rate of incarceration have triggered much discussion regarding the fate of mass incarceration. Some observers suggest that the political consensus in favor of getting tough on crime has been shattered and replaced by a new consensus that the prison population must be downsized. In this article, we explore the possibility that neither legislation nor public discourse around crime and punishment has shifted so dramatically, and that the cultural dynamics surrounding reform efforts may undermine the prospects of comprehensive sentencing reform. To assess these hypotheses, we analyze trends in criminal justice policy reform from 2000 to 2013 and newspaper stories and editorials on criminal justice reform since 2008. While we do find important examples of changing rhetoric and policy, we suggest that these changes do not constitute a “paradigm shift.” Rather, they are indicative of a more subtle, complex, and contradictory modification of the way punishment is conceived, discussed, and ultimately enacted.