Social Studies

Crime and Punishment---Do We Need a Fresh Start?

Drawing on his wide-ranging research, a leading SSN sociologist argues that now is the time to revamp America’s troubled criminal justice system.

In an enlightening forum at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs sponsored by Minneapolis-St. Paul SSN, Christopher Uggen discussed the state of criminal justice in America with district court judge and former chief public defender Leonardo Castro. Their remarks were broadcast on Minnesota Public Radio.

Uggen shared his expertise on felon disenfranchisement and collateral consequences of incarceration–that is, the punishments and deprivations that extend beyond prison terms, such as the loss of voting rights and access to certain government benefits, along with the joblessness and ruptured community and family ties often experienced by those who have served time in prison. Uggen explained how racial and economic inequalities, sharply reduced social services and supports, and tough criminal justice practices have contributed to massive increases in the population of incarcerated citizens and people serving parole, especially African Americans. But increasing rates of incarceration make little sense given a 50% decrease in crime over the past three decades, and now is the time to capitalize on the country’s growing awareness and concern about inequalities in criminal penalties to empower a “justice-focused” movement for reform. Possible steps to head off imprisonment and keep the formerly imprisoned from offending again include using correctional supervision in place of prison for nonviolent crimes, placing greater stress on rehabilitation, and providing increased services for drug users and the mentally ill.

Christopher Uggen teaches classes on deviant behavior, juvenile delinquency, and criminology at the University of Minnesota. He is the author of numerous books and articles on felon disenfranchisement and inequality, and two SSN briefs on “Lessons from Rwanda’s Quest for a Just Response to Genocide” and “What Americans Believe about Voting Rights for Criminals.” His research has been discussed in the New York Times and Minnesota Daily, and he has contributed multiple articles on criminal justice to MinnPost. Along with Douglas Hartmann, also a member of SSN at the University of Minnesota, Chris edits The Society Pages.

This piece originally appeared here.