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Punitive Preventive Justice: A Critique


Bernard E. Harcourt


Columbia University

May 24, 2012

Forthcoming in Andrew Ashworth and Lucia Zedner, eds., PREVENTIVE JUSTICE, Oxford University Press
University of Chicago Institute for Law & Economics Olin Research Paper No. 599
U of Chicago, Public Law Working Paper No. 386

Abstract:     
This book chapter critically examines punitive preventive measures, such as preventive detention for dangerous individuals, stop-and-frisks on the street, and order-maintenance policing. After reviewing the traditional concern expressed about punitive preventive practices, the chapter investigates the empirical evidence in support of such measures, concluding that the purported need for these measures is, on balance, factually overstated and generally unproven. But the empirical problems foreground a deeper theoretical difficulty with punitive preventive justice, namely that the modern approach to punitive prevention relies predominantly on economic cost-benefit analytic methods that effectively displace political debate and contestation. Like earlier punitive preventive interventions — such as eugenics or phrenology — the modern approach is grounded on technical, scientific knowledge that privileges efficiency over most other political values and, in the process, tends to displace politics. The modern approach claims to be objective, apolitical, and neutral; it claims to be merely pursuing the most efficient policy option given an agreed-upon narrow objective. But it inevitably reintroduces political values and choices in its outputs. The approach also obfuscates criticism by making it harder for the layman to identify the political values embedded in the technical models. In the end, it insidiously degrades the public sphere and masks political redistribution. For these reasons, the chapter argues against punitive preventive justice.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 27

Keywords: Punitive prevention, preventive detention, stop-and-frisk, broken windows theory, racial profiling, punishment, cost-benefit analysis, operations research, systems analysis, PPBS

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Date posted: May 25, 2012  

Suggested Citation

Harcourt, Bernard E., Punitive Preventive Justice: A Critique (May 24, 2012). Forthcoming in Andrew Ashworth and Lucia Zedner, eds., PREVENTIVE JUSTICE, Oxford University Press; University of Chicago Institute for Law & Economics Olin Research Paper No. 599; U of Chicago, Public Law Working Paper No. 386. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2065981

Contact Information

Bernard E. Harcourt (Contact Author)
Columbia University ( email )
Jerome Green Hall, Room 515
435 West 116th Street
New York, NY 10027
United States
HOME PAGE: http://www.law.columbia.edu/fac/Bernard_Harcourt
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