Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

The persistence of the punitive turn in Latin America: Conditions and dynamics

Since the last decade of the twentieth century there has been a notable surge in incarceration rates across the majority of Latin America, a trend whose magnitude sharply contrasts with the evolution of imprisonment in the rest of the world. Although, up until very recently, rising incarceration rates have been a global trend since the 1980s, Latin America’s rates are exponentially higher. This trend has been especially marked in the last few decades as the rest of the world has seen its incarceration rates slowly unwind. As such, the persistence of this ‘punitive turn,’ as the trend is known, increasingly demands an explanation for its prevalence in the Latin American context. Professor Maximo Sozzo of the National University of Litoral in Santa Fe, Argentina, eloquently takes on this challenge


Sophia Dermetzis


Time to read

3 Minutes

The term ‘punitive turn’ has been a way of thinking of penal change in contemporary societies/academics of the global north since the 1990s, and as such has been primarily coloured by the politics and contexts of Europe and the USA. Sozzo begins by highlighting the term’s inherent connection to (the growth of) punitiveness, and notes the inherent ambiguity in its definition. He shares his understanding of punitiveness as the level of human pain or suffering induced by penality, which in itself intends to produce that outcome. Understanding these global patterns of ‘mass incarceration’ as being directly correlated to human suffering add another layer of complexity to the question at hand. As does the question of magnitude: how much does punitiveness have to grow in order to evoke the existence of a punitive turn?

Endeavouring to reach answers, the last decades have yielded different interpretative frameworks which have dominated the debates around the penal turn— both in general, and in Latin America. Sozzo identifies three of these interpretative frameworks that primarily influenced political and academic discussions on punishment since the 1990s. First, the ‘late modern penality thesis’ —heavily based on David Garland’s work— emphasises how the transition to late modernity went hand-in-hand with increased public awareness and anxiety of high crime rates, leading to the emergence of a criminal justice state that addressed these concerns. Secondly, ‘the neoliberal penality thesis,’ namely the work of Wacquant, which identifies a divorce of the penal sphere from the political economy and the Social State and an intensification of the penal state as a way of governing social marginality. Lastly and similarly, the ‘post-fordist penality thesis,’ which relies mainly on Alessandro de Giorgi’s work, explores the idea that historically incarceration became a mechanism of social control to manage the surplus population that accompanies the rise of capitalism.

All three examine and identify different factors that explain incarceration trends; and although they interpret the punitive turn in different ways, Sozzo teases out the overlap in their arguments. He acknowledges their importance and influence in the subject, but also notes that their shared view of the penal turn as a macroscopic phenomenon born of epochal change offers a simplified, and even nostalgic, construction of the past. Sozzo problematises this approach as it obscures the inertia central to the penal turn; he therefore highlights the importance of understanding historical events and political rationalities as fluid, rather than frozen in time.

Furthermore, their rootedness in the context of the Global North, namely that of the USA, means that these frameworks adopt a certain duality in the context of Latin America as they are an indispensable theoretical base for approaching the study of penal trends, but also prove inadequate in addressing these trends in peripheral, Global South countries. Sozzo warns against the dangers of universalising the trends that result in penal turns; this is generally understood by academia that focuses on peripheral contexts, but it comes with its own issues. He notes that in the generally critical approach towards such dominant narratives often results in the phenomena of the periphery being theorised in the negative, narrowing down on the differences between Latin America and the Global North, such as that which results in a dearth of elaborations or alternative explanations of the penal turn in Latin America. As such, Sozzo posits the necessity of embedding the phenomenon in the temporal and geographical contexts that produced it, rather than examining it through theories based in alternate contexts.

Sozzo arrives at the idea that the answer lies in a multilayered explanation for the penal turn in Latin America. Some of the different layers he identifies include the political and economical atmosphere; the degree of autonomy penal institutions had from the socio-political debate; the centrality of past political legacies; and the variable conception of crime in the public eye. However as these are factors that vary from one country to another, furthering understanding of the penal turn requires more in-depth research of different national contexts to avoid the generalisations that existing literature often gets stuck in. As such Sozzo then narrows down on the case of Argentina, and identifies three intersecting layers that combine to explain the occurrences in the penal field in the last four decades. The first is the effects of the global transition to capitalism, which manifested in Argentina as two waves of neoliberal economic social policies put into practice in the 1980s. These translated into huge expansion of inequality and a series of economic crises that correlated to a rise of incarceration.The second layer was the politicisation of crime in the 1990s, which was accompanied by a ‘mano dura’ (tough on crime) attitude. The final layer is a high level of permeability between politics and public institutions, such as those of the criminal justice system, who would accommodate political changes to their practices and as such experienced consistent reforms that directly impacted incarceration levels.

Sozzo’s research concludes that this phenomenon is not as binary as its name, the penal turn, indicates, as it is driven by the inertia of fluctuating economic, social and political factors. He concludes by emphasising that there is still much to be uncovered to fully unravel the mysteries of the Latin American penal turn; particularly as these factors are context-dependent. Thus, he underlines the need for more such studies across different jurisdictions, in order to achieve a complete picture of the penal turn in Latin America.


De Giorgi, A. (2017). Re-thinking the political economy of punishment: Perspectives on post-Fordism and penal politics. Routledge.

Garland, D. (2013). Penality and the penal state. Criminology, 51(3), 475–515. https://doi.org/10.1111/1745-9125.12015.

Wacquant, L. (2013). Crafting the neo-liberal state: Workfare, prisonfare and social insecurity. In D. Scott (Ed.), Why Prison? (pp. 65–86). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

S. Dermetzis. (2024) The persistence of the punitive turn in Latin America: Conditions and dynamics. Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/centre-criminology-blog/blog-post/2024/05/persistence-punitive-turn-latin-america-conditions-and. Accessed on: 17/07/2024