Barker, Vanessa. The Politics of Imprisonment: How the Democratic Process Shapes the Way America Punishes Offenders. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. ix + 252 pages. Cloth, $35.00.
Criminologist Vanessa Barker has conceptualized, researched, and written a first-rate and cutting-edge work that explores the interactions among several variables at the state level in explaining different approaches to punishment in democratic America. This readable, extensively documented, and logically-organized monograph was awarded a 2009 Pass Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency under the "literature" category, which rightly spotlighted Barker's abilities as not only a scholar, but as a competent writer. This contribution to the scholarship on detention policies and theories, including incarceration goals and trends, democratic practices, and crime and punishment, from a (cross-regional) comparative (intra-United States) perspective, is a socio-historical treatment of the origins and development of varying penal policies, and of how most citizens understand, and respond to, crime and punishment in their local communities.
In examining the disparities in prison population rates in the United States, Barker concentrates on the nuances underlying criminal justice policy, especially how penal systems, which glaringly manifest underlying public authority, interact with formal and informal democratic processes in America. Specifically, she studies California, Washington, and New York (in that order) when explaining how Americans politically mobilize and, in turn, how American democracy-in-action influences the criminal justice system and its sanctioning of defendants. The analysis is based on copious research, including field polls, government reports and statistics, and official speeches, as well as scholarly articles and monographs. It is presented through introductory and concluding chapters, which provide context to that which addresses penal regime variation in the states the author investigates.
Barker's crucial assumption in The Politics of Imprisonment is that "[a]cross much of the United States, rehabilitation, the underlying principle of punishment, has been replaced by retribution as many policy makers, politicians, and correctional officials have given up on efforts to reform inmates and instead simply punish them, sometimes quite...