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What were “They” Thinking, and Does it Matter? Structural Inequality and Individual Intent in Criminal Justice Reform

  • Hadar Aviram


In Visions of Social Control (1985) Stanley Cohen provided a typology of scholarly works on the punitive turn: “uneven progress,” “good intentions-disastrous consequences,” and “discipline and mystification.” This Essay applies these categories to recent punishment and society scholarship, finding a clear preference for the third category, arguing that current works do not merely point to systemic evils—they impute bad intent to individuals in the system. Against this current, I identify two works—James Forman’s Locking Up Our Own (2017) and Heather Schoenfeld’s Building the Prison State (2016)—and show the strengths of analyses that take individual actors on their own terms. Finally, relying on the recent example of the Ban the Box initiative—a well-intended but failed policy—I argue that flexibility in viewing actors’ motivations, rather than relegating them to the role of cogs in a system fraught by inherent flaws, is important not only for scholarly accuracy but for policy and strategic reasons.



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She is thankful to Binyamin Blum, Malcolm Feeley, Johann Kohler, Ashley Rubin, and Reuel Schiller for our conversations about historicism and theorizing. This Essay is dedicated to the memory and legacy of Stanley Cohen.



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