Progressive Punishment

Job Loss, Jail Growth, and the Neoliberal Logic of Carceral Expansion

320 pages

2 tables

December, 2015

ISBN: 9781479808779



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Judah Schept is Assistant Professor of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University.

All books by Judah Schept

Winner, 2017 American Society of Criminology's Division on Critical Criminology and Social Justice Best Book Award

The growth of mass incarceration in the United States eludes neat categorization as a product of the political Right. Liberals played important roles in both laying the foundation for and then participating in the conservative tough on crime movement that is largely credited with the rise of the prison state. But what of those politicians and activists on the Left who reject punitive politics in favor of rehabilitation and a stronger welfare state? Can progressive policies such as these, with their benevolent intentions, nevertheless contribute to the expansion of mass incarceration?
In Progressive Punishment, Judah Schept offers an ethnographic examination into the politics of incarceration in Bloomington, Indiana in order to consider the ways that liberal discourses about therapeutic justice and rehabilitation can uphold the logics, practices and institutions that comprise the carceral state. Schept examines how political leaders on the Left, despite being critical of mass incarceration, advocated for a “justice campus” that would have dramatically expanded the local criminal justice system. At the root of this proposal, Schept argues, is a confluence of neoliberal-style changes in the community that naturalized prison expansion as political common sense among leaders negotiating crises of deindustrialization, urban decline, and the devolution of social welfare. In spite of the momentum that the proposal gained, Schept uncovers resistance among community organizers, who developed important strategies and discourses to challenge the justice campus, disrupt some of the logics that provided it legitimacy, and offer new possibilities for a non-carceral community. A well-researched and well-narrated study, Progressive Punishment offers a novel perspective on the relationship between liberal politics, neoliberalism, and mass incarceration.


  • Progressive Punishment pushes relentlessly and appropriately against the ‘common sense’ understandings of liberal reform that simply exacerbate mass incarceration.”

    —Michelle Brown, author of The Culture of Punishment

  • “Schept’s stunningly original analysis shows how difficult it will be to escape the carceral state we have built over the past four decades. A breakthrough in punishment and society research.”

    —Jonathan Simon, author of Mass Incarceration on Trial

  • “This is a significant contribution that crosses disciplinary boundaries.”

    Choice Connect