Annual Theme 2010-2011

The theme was devised in consultation between Professors J. H. H. Weiler, David Garland and Jim Jacobs.

Orientation Paper
The Straus Institute for the Advanced Study of Law & Justice

Questions of Punishment

Questions of punishment are once more on the agenda, in America and elsewhere. All modern societies struggle to control crime and to dispense criminal justice, but the situation in America raises new questions and challenges. At the start of the 21st century, America’s sentencing laws have been transformed by three decades of law and order politics to become among the most severe of any western nation. Capital punishment remains in force, producing dozens of executions each year, each one the focus of legal and political contention. More than 2 million Americans are confined in jails and prisons and a further 4 million are on probation or parole – a level of incarceration that is unparalleled in the history of democratic societies. This phenomenon of “mass imprisonment” has become a focus for sociological and legal research, but also a challenge to policy makers who deal with its social and community consequences.  Juvenile justice has moved away from its correctional objectives, blurring the distinction between the treatment of child offenders and the punishment of incorrigible adults. In one sphere after another – corporate malfeasance, drug use, public order, regulating the internet – the criminal law is being used to control conduct and punish violators, extending the scope of state and federal power and intensifying the impact of the power to punish.   

These distinctive policies raise questions for legal and social science scholars as well as for policy-makers and the public. And they make comparative inquiry more important than ever. The Straus Institute’s second year will be devoted to these questions, and to facilitating an intellectual environment in which they can be fruitfully discussed.

The law and politics of crime control: Are tough law and order policies compatible with the rule of law and democratic values? Can a fair and balanced criminal justice be shaped in the heat of political debate? How can one maintain a proper balance of power in criminal justice, when the interests of the state, the public and victims seem always to outweigh those of individual defendants and convicted criminals?

The principles and purposes of criminal justice: What kind of “justice” is criminal justice? What are the goals that ought to shape sentencing decisions and criminal justice institutions? What is the proper role of public sentiment in deciding policies and punishments? What is the proper role of professional expertise? Who are the appropriate sentencing authorities?

The sociology of punishment: What are the causes and consequences of this state of affairs? What does mass imprisonment mean for American communities, for political and economic processes and for race relations? Why has America taken this path when most comparable nations have not?

The example of other nations:  How do other nations deal with the challenges of contemporary crime control and criminal justice? Are there alternative ways to control crime and ensure public safety?

The challenges for policy and law reform: What are the practical lessons of the research accomplished so far? What are the research agendas that ought to shape the next generation of criminal law scholarship and reform?   How can sociological analysis and normative critique be translated into policy initiatives and legal reforms? What works today in penal reform? 

These are the concerns that will shape the research and the discussions hosted by the Straus Institute for the Advanced Study of Law & Justice in its second year, 2010-2011.