Penal power in America: Forms, functions and foundations

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In this article I discuss the exercise of penal power in contemporary America with a view to explaining its historical causes, its contemporary forms and functions, and its social foundations. I argue that the leading characteristic of American penality today is not degradation, retribution, racial caste-making, or neoliberal discipline but instead the imposition of penal controls. The remainder of the article develops some hypotheses about the social and political roots of that distinctive form of punishment. Re-connecting penal controls with patterns of crime and violence, I highlight the deficits of social control and social capital that set America off from comparable nations and I trace the sources of these deficits to the structure and operation of certain American institutions as well as the limited capacities and patterned dispositions of the American state.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-35
Number of pages35
JournalJournal of the British Academy
Publication statusPublished - 18 Jan 2017


  • penality
  • political economy
  • criminal violence
  • social control
  • social deficitis
  • state capacity
  • penal control
  • mass penal control

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