Punishment Theory, Mass Incarceration, and the Overdetermination of Racialized Justice

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Department or Administrative Unit

Philosophy and Religious Studies

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In recent years, scholars have documented the racial disparities of mass incarceration. In this paper we argue that, although retributivism and deterrence theory appear to be race-neutral, in the contemporary U.S. context these seemingly contrary theories function jointly to rationalize racial inequities in the criminal justice system. When people of color are culturally associated with criminality, they are perceived as both irresponsible and hyperresponsible, a paradox that reflects their status as what Charles Mills calls subpersons. Following from this paradox, criminality is understood as an atemporal characteristic of people of color, such that they are conceived as pre-criminals, criminals, or post-criminals. In Frantz Fanon’s account, overdetermination expresses this exclusion of people of color from full agency by capturing them within a rigid, immutable essence, which then controls the social meaning of their actions. The backward-looking quality of retribution and the forward-looking quality of deterrence then treat people of color as more deserving of punishment (and more severe punishment) and as threats to the social order who have to be restrained. We should read the racialization of mass incarceration as a symptom of how precariously people of color participate in the social contract and as reflections of how theories of punishment have been racially deployed.


This article was originally published in Criminal Law and Philosophy. The full-text article from the publisher can be found here.

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Criminal Law and Philosophy


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