Policy, Power, and Prisons: The Paradox of Twentieth-Century Justice

AHA Session 178
Saturday, January 7, 2012: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Chicago Ballroom G (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Claudrena Harold, University of Virginia
Claudrena Harold, University of Virginia

Session Abstract

Over the last decade, historians have come to see the importance of crime and criminal justice to understanding larger narratives of American politics, race relations, and gender ideologies. This panel addresses this burgeoning scholarship by exploring the issues of race, crime, and justice in twentieth century America. Specifically, these papers seek to elucidate the historical processes by which certain groups gained the power to determine crime prevention strategies, who would be incarcerated, and how prisoners would be treated once behind bars. At the heart of these investigations is a common focus on the role of race in complicating the narrative of crime policy in the twentieth century. Tera Agyepong’s paper opens the panel by exploring turn of the century ideas about African American juvenile delinquency. She shows that young black girls were portrayed as violent, masculine delinquents during the Progressive era and that these ideas shaped policies that centered on punishment instead of rehabilitation. Elizabeth Kai Hinton’s work brings Agyepong’s argument into the 1970s, arguing that the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 was a pivotal step in the federal government’s move towards incarceration of young, poor African Americas. This legislation set the stage for major changes in federal policy that restructured the criminal justice system and poverty policy. Megan Stubbendeck shows how a concurrent movement of police officers in the area of gang prevention also changed the federal system. In her work, Stubbendeck argues that local law enforcement—motivated by both race and class anxieties—provided both the leadership and the grassroots mobilization for the “law and order” movement that shaped federal crime policies. Finally, Logan McBride, takes us behind prison walls to show that prison administrators, like police officers, played a vital role in shaping the criminal justice system. McBride argues that rising black nationalism within prisons and administrators’ response to it affected relationships among prisoners and guards and shaped culture behind bars and on the streets. As a whole, these papers begin a conversation about power of people and perceptions in crime history. They explore how groups and individuals attempted to negotiate the changing landscape or crime policy in the twentieth century and in doing so changed the national discourse about crime, prisons, and offenders.

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