Punishment, Deterrence and Social Control: The Paradox of Punishment in Minority Communities

Jeffrey Fagan, Columbia Law School
Tracey L. Meares


Since the early 1970s, the number of individuals in jails and state and federal prisons has grown exponentially. Today, nearly 2 million people are currently incarcerated in state and federal prisons and local jails. The growth of imprisonment has been borne disproportionately by African-American and Hispanic men from poor communities in urban areas. Rising incarceration should have greatly reduced the crime rate. After all, incapacitated offenders were no longer free to rob, assault, steal, or commit other crimes. However, no large scale reduction in crime was detected until the mid-1990's. The failure of crime rates to decline commensurately with increases in the rate and severity of punishment reveals a paradox of punishment: recent experiments have shown that among persons of color, especially those who are poor or reside in poor neighborhoods, harsher punishment has produced iatrogenic or counterdeterrent effects.

Two processes are identified that produced punishment paradoxes or defiance of legal sanctions. First, the long-term and spatially concentrated shift of social and economic resources from informal social controls to formal legal controls, particularly incarceration, weakens localized informal social controls and creates recurring cycles of discontrol. Neighborhood and work contexts offer social status and mete out shame and social opprobria for wrongdoing. However, stable rates of inequality and deprivation in minority communities compromise three dimensions of social control: social capital or regulation, "stakes in conformity" through marriage and work, and participation in political institutions. Second, high rates of punishment produce "stigma saturation" where punishment loses its contingent value that lends credibility to its claims of fairness and proportionality. As the social and cultural distance between the punishers and the punished widens, respect for the legitimacy of punishment suffers. Dissatisfaction with both procedural and distributive justice can motivate legal cynicism and noncompliance, and these processes are intensified in contexts of weak social control and high legal control.

As legal control replaces informal social control, the state's role in socialization and the fostering of moral communities diminishes. The devolving of the public sector involvement in socialization further moots the reintegrative functions of punishment. This restructuring and devaluation of government, accompanied by the restructuring and fragmentation of economic activity in poor communities, complicates the achievement of a social consensus on the rationale of punishment in a broader context of social control, and limits the efficacy of informal processes of social regulation.