The Punishment Imperative

The Rise and Failure of Mass Incarceration in America

269 pages

November, 2013

ISBN: 9780814717196



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Todd R. Clear is Provost at Rutgers University, Newark. He is the author of Imprisoning Communities and What Is Community Justice? and is the founding editor of the journal Criminology & Public Policy.

All books by Todd R. Clear

Natasha A. Frost is Associate Dean and Associate Professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. Her books include The Punitive State and Contemporary Issues in Crime and Justice Policy.

All books by Natasha A. Frost

Over the last 35 years, the US penal system has grown at a rate unprecedented in US history—five times larger than in the past and grossly out of scale with the rest of the world. This growth was part of a sustained and intentional effort to “get tough” on crime, and characterizes a time when no policy options were acceptable save for those that increased penalties. In The Punishment Imperative, eminent criminologists Todd R. Clear and Natasha A. Frost argue that America’s move to mass incarceration from the 1960s to the early 2000s was more than just a response to crime or a collection of policies adopted in isolation; it was a grand social experiment. Tracing a wide array of trends related to the criminal justice system, The Punishment Imperative charts the rise of penal severity in America and speculates that a variety of forces—fiscal, political, and evidentiary—have finally come together to bring this great social experiment to an end.
Clear and Frost stress that while the doubling of the crime rate in the late 1960s represented one of the most pressing social problems at the time, this is not what served as a foundation for the great punishment experiment. Rather, it was the way crime posed a political problem—and thereby offered a political opportunity—that became the basis for the great rise in punishment. The authors claim that the punishment imperativeis a particularly insidious social experiment because the actual goal was never articulated, the full array of consequences was never considered, and the momentum built even as the forces driving the policy shifts diminished. Clear and Frost argue that the public’s growing realization that the severe policies themselves, not growing crime rates, were the main cause of increased incarceration eventually led to a surge of interest in taking a more rehabilitative, pragmatic, and cooperative approach to dealing with criminal offenders.
The Punishment Imperative cautions that the legacy of the grand experiment of the past forty years will be difficult to escape. However, the authors suggest that the United States now stands at the threshold of a new era in penal policy, and they offer several practical and pragmatic policy solutions to changing the criminal justice system’s approach to punishment. Part historical study, part forward-looking policy analysis, The Punishment Imperative is a compelling study of a generation of crime and punishment in America.


  • "Backed up by the best science, Todd Clear and Natasha Frost make a compelling case for why the nation’s forty-year embrace of the punitive spirit has been morally bankrupt and endangered public safety. But this is far more than an exposé of correctional failure. Recognizing that a policy turning point is at hand, Clear and Frost provide a practical blueprint for choosing a different correctional future—counsel that is wise and should be widely followed."

    —Francis Cullen, Distinguished Research Professor of Criminal Justice, University of Cincinnati

  • "For forty years, the heavy hammer of criminal punishment has been the nation's primary tool for addressing social problems. And when the hammer has failed to fix these problems or does further damage, we've responded by grabbing an even bigger hammer. In The Punishment Imperative, Todd Clear and Natasha Frost convincingly demonstrate that the hammer has, finally, become too heavy for us to raise. They offer a masterful dissection of this 'grand social experiment'; showing how we embarked on this strategy, its costs to individuals and communities, and a clear-headed path to real reform. The Punishment Imperative is neither armchair critique nor utopian vision, but rather an eye-opening and truly authoritative treatment by two true experts on punishment's past, present, and future."

    —Christopher Uggen, co-author of Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy

  • “This compelling narrative helps us better understand the history, trajectory, and complexity of the politics of punishment in the United States over the past four decades. At a time of impending shifts in the correctional landscape in this country, this impressive volume should be on the reading list not only for scholars and students of mass incarceration, but also for corrections practitioners and policymakers everywhere who care about a new vision for America's penal system.”

    —Laurie O. Robinson, Former Assistant Attorney General of the United States Department of Justice

  • "Criminologists Clear (Imprisoning Communities) and Frost (The Punitive State) offer an accessible study of mass incarceration in the U.S. that is theoretically sophisticated and rich in statistical data...A meticulously organized concluding chapter lays out their proposals with an eye toward reducing sentences and making them more humane for nonviolent offenders. The book merits serious consideration beyond an academic audience."

    Publishers Weekly

  • "This well-documented volume will interest anyone connected to our criminal justice system and may appeal to general readers concerned about the subject of incarceration."

    —Frances O. Sandiford , Library Journal

  • "This short, efficiently conveyed study cannot delve into all of the ramifications of how to integrate those returning to society, however, The Punishment Imperative attests to the need for a better way to manage the millions that our nation have, for too long, relegated to simply lock up, forever."


  • "Part historical study, part forward-looking policy analysis, The Punishment Imperative is a compelling study of a generation of crime and punishment in America."

    —Douglas A. Berman, Sentencing Law and Policy

  • "It is too soon to tell if a sea of change is upon the US penal system, but the authors make their cogent argument in this well-written book. Summing Up: Highly recommended."

    —P. Horne, Choice

  • "The book's 200 pages of details and its prescriptions will be intriguing even to those who know the field."