The Rights Revolution and Criminal Justice Reform after the 1960s

AHA Session 250
Sunday, January 6, 2019: 9:00 AM-10:30 AM
Wabash Room (Palmer House Hilton, Third Floor)
Toussaint Losier, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Toussaint Losier, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Session Abstract

During the last half of the twentieth century, the Supreme Court dramatically expanded the rights of prisoners and those accused of crimes. This panel investigates how, whether, and to what extent this “Rights Revolution” reshaped criminal justice practices and institutions. Our papers focus on three separate institutional spaces: jails, policing, and prisons. In each, we highlight how legal shifts empowered grassroots activists and individuals entangled in the criminal justice system to demand further changes. We also grapple with state and federal officials who remained loyal to an older vision of criminal justice--one rooted in local control and administrative discretion. In doing so, our panel seeks to shed fresh light on a paradox central to America’s peculiar criminal justice system: why does the nation, despite affording individuals a wide range of rights, continue to punish more harshly than other Western countries. While exploring this question, our papers illuminate the limitations and possibilities of the law as a tool for social change, document how government agencies respond to legal and political pressure, and highlight the ideological and institutional obstacles Americans face when casting their demands as judicially cognizable rights claims.

Our panel includes three presenters who will each speak for fifteen minutes. Toussaint Losier, the panel chair, will then offer a brief comment on the papers before opening the floor to discussion. We begin with Melanie Newport’s paper, “’Metropolitan Corrections’ and Prisoners Rights Struggles in Chicago’s Jails,” which examines how procedural reforms and the expansion of prisoners’ rights inspired a wave of activism around jail conditions during the 1960s. Highlighting the work of a range of actors—including the League of Women Voters, celebrities, and inmates themselves—she argues that policy-based reforms rooted in penological research undermined prisoners’ struggles within the jail. Next, Andrew Baer turns our attention to Chicago’s police torture scandal and its aftermath in his paper, The Jon Burge Police Torture Scandal and the Explanatory Limits of the Carceral State Paradigm.” Baer suggests the “carceral state paradigm,” which connects the rise of mass incarceration to law-and-order rhetoric, federal funding of local law enforcement, the war on drugs, and police militarization, does little to explain the emergence of a torture regime in 1970s Chicago. While political and legal changes at the national level influenced police departments across the United States, local developments continued to determine the nature and frequency of police violence in Big City America. Finally, Amanda Hughett’s paper “Rights without Remedy: Federal Judges and the Prison Litigation Reform Act,” demonstrates how federal legislators drew on federal judges’ language regarding inmates’ “frivolous” lawsuits to pass legislation effectively shutting the doors to litigation challenging prison conditions and practices. The legislators’ success, she suggests, highlights judges’ far-reaching ability to shape American politics and illuminates how the history of prisoners’ marginalized legal status continued to shape inmates’ relationship to the law well after the Rights Revolution. Together, these papers call scholars to rethink the federal court's role in transforming criminal justice institutions after the 1950s.

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