« Posner on Barak | Main | What's in store for the Future of Entry-Level Hiring? »

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Bernard Harcourt on Aggregated Institutionalization

With a free two hours this morning, I decided to pull an article off the pile of things that I have been intending to read. (I don’t know if anyone else has such a pile, but mine has grown at an alarming rate during the academic year, because of articles and reports mentioned on line or recommended by colleagues that, although I find them very interesting, do not happen to tie into whatever project that I am working on at the moment.)

Sitting near the top of the pile, was Bernard Harcourt’s From the Asylum to the Prison: Rethinking the Incarceration Revolution, which the Texas Law Review published last year. I’m happy to report that the article itself is as groundbreaking and interesting to read as the abstract suggests. Though I can’t possibly do the paper justice here, let me simply say that the paper provides important insight into the conventional wisdom that incarceration was relatively stable until the mid-1970s, while the latter part of the twentieth century saw an “incarceration revolution” — that is a sharp increase in the rate of incarceration. 

Harcourt suggests that incarceration rates don’t tell the full story of confinement in the United States. According to him, up until the mid-twentieth century, large numbers of individuals were confined in mental hospitals. But in the 1960s, the deinstitutionalization of mental hospitals resulted in a sharp decline of the number of individuals confined in those institutions. If viewed together with mental hospital confinement rates, the “incarceration revolution” of the late twentieth century returned overall confinement rates to their pre-mid-1960s level. Using this overall confinement rate data, the article raises important questions about a number of empirical crime control studies.

It also raises important questions about the assumptions that many of us make about modern sentencing and incarceration policy. Many groups and individuals who advocate sentencing reform cite the dramatic upward trend in incarceration at the end of the twentieth century as troubling evidence that reduced sentences are needed.  (I myself have often heard or even participated in conversations to the same effect.) Harcourt’s article and his data suggest that the story of modern incarceration is much more complex, and that we need to better understand our country’s historic willingness to use confinement as the solution to social deviance before answering the modern questions of sentencing reform.

Posted by Carissa Hessick on April 17, 2007 at 02:15 PM in Criminal Law | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Bernard Harcourt on Aggregated Institutionalization:


I'm not clear why institutionalized mentally ill people should be added to people sentenced to prison as punishment for committing a crime to produce an "aggregated institutionalization" count. The major reason so many mentally ill people were released from institutions in the 1960s was not because of some change in public attitude regarding the mentally ill but because (somewhat) effective antipsychotic medications became available. I don't see what this has to do with our currently over-punitive criminal sentencing systems.

Posted by: katie | Apr 18, 2007 11:28:44 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.