Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

American Penal Power: Its Forms, Functions and Social Foundations


Gabrielle Watson


Time to read

3 Minutes

In this post, DPhil candidate Gabrielle Watson reviews the Centre for Criminology’s 50th Anniversary Lecture by Professor David Garland (New York University) and chaired by Professor Ian Loader (University of Oxford). The event was held on Thursday, 12 May 2016 at Corpus Christi College, Oxford.

To a criminological audience, the distinctive character of American penality isn’t new. It is well-documented, for example, that the democratic intuition of humane and inclusionary punishment finds little expression in the American context. In his 50th Anniversary Lecture, ‘American Penal Power: Its Forms, Functions and Social Foundations,’ Professor David Garland invited us to reflect on the mechanisms and processes that are conducive to American penal severity. The research is in its early stages and builds upon the explanatory framework set out in The Culture of Control, one of several works that established Garland on the world stage as a leading scholar of punishment and society.

Garland began by tracing the lineage―and current limitations―of historical and comparative research on American penality. A defining feature of the historical work has been its (arguably disproportionate) concern with the emergence of mass incarceration. Garland proposes to offer a challenging corrective to that scholarship by attending not only to questions of imprisonment but, instead, to the entire ‘penal apparatus’ through which individuals are indicted, excluded, controlled, and punished. Meanwhile, much of the comparative work has related differential levels of punishment to three macro-level characteristics, as detailed in the exacting accounts of Wilkinson and Pickett on inequality, Cavadino and Dignan on the welfare state, and Lacey and Soskice on political economy. Yet, Garland observed, the complex and diverse processes that link crime and punishment to these macro-level characteristics have been left largely unarticulated. In his new work, Garland will seek to articulate them.

In working towards a contribution of this kind, Garland pursued―in a characteristically systematic manner―three clear lines of enquiry. First, he sought to make connections between America’s remarkable penal power and patterns of criminal violence. Second, he traced the ways in which both patterns of penal power and criminal violence have been structured by America’s distinctive form of government and its distinctive political economy. Third, he highlighted the pivotal role played by social control deficits in connecting these micro-level and macro-level processes. Of note was Garland’s intention to invoke the Weberian notion of the ‘historical individual’ as part of that enquiry. In the US, where extensive powers are devolved to individual states, it makes little sense to talk of a criminal justice ‘system.’ Weber’s historical individual allows Garland, at once, to acknowledge the reality of American penality as localised, disparate, and fragmented and conceive of it as a discrete phenomenon for analytical purposes.

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of Garland’s discussion was the dissatisfaction he expressed with the ways in which American penality is currently being configured. The most prominent theses―Alexander in The New Jim Crow, Wacquant in Punishing the Poor, and Simon in Governing Through Crime―variously draw attention to the political, economic, racial, and cultural factors that are implicated in America’s punitive style of criminal justice. Garland rejected these accounts in favour of an alternative understanding of the system’s nature and emergence, in which the fundamental principle is a specific form of penal power, which he terms ‘penal control.’

Of course, the argument that punishment comes in a variety of forms is well-rehearsed. It is possible, for example, to differentiate practices involving penal afflictions (capital punishment, corporal punishment, and public shaming), penal levies (the extraction of financial resources from the individual including fines, restitution, compensation, and damages), penal control (imprisonment, supervision, and disqualification), and penal assistance (correctional treatment, restorative justice, mediation, drug therapy, education, and counselling). Garland’s claim is that American penality―over the past forty years and across fifty states―has been overwhelmingly oriented towards practices of penal control. His proposed strategy is to explain American penality by reconnecting penal control to patterns of crime and violence, in a move away from other contemporary accounts that have placed explanatory weight on one factor over another. It’s a strategy that is refreshing in its breadth and ambition. This is especially so in the context of academic criminology, which is all too concerned with precisely drawn, narrowly focused accounts, to the relative exclusion of large-scale hypotheses and grand narratives.

As the lecture progressed, it became clear that Garland’s new work will not be restricted to an analytic contribution on the specific forms, contemporary functions and social foundations of penal power in contemporary America. Rather, the vocabulary of penal control that he has proposed has the potential, at least, to move political debate on the issue into a new and largely unexplored terrain. On this occasion, however, Garland was concerned simply to ‘establish the phenomenon’ of American penal power―to describe its extent and intensity―since, for Garland, thorough description functions as a necessary prelude to a coherent explanatory account. All those engaged in the study of punishment in the US and internationally are likely to follow the development of Garland’s new project with great interest, and share a keen sense of anticipation for his explanatory account of penal control to take form.

Professor Garland will lecture again on this theme on Tuesday, 24 May at the University of Edinburgh and on Tuesday, 7 June at the British Academy.