The Consensus Myth in Criminal Justice Reform

60 Pages Posted: 16 Apr 2018 Last revised: 24 Apr 2018

Benjamin Levin

University of Colorado Law School

Date Written: April 1, 2018

Abstract

It has become popular to identify a “bipartisan consensus” on criminal justice reform, but how deep is that consensus, actually? This Article argues that the purported consensus is largely illusory. Despite shared reformist vocabulary, the consensus rests on distinct critiques that identify different flaws and justify distinct policy solutions. The underlying disagreements transcend traditional left/right political divides and speak to deeper disputes about the state and the role of criminal law in society.

The Article offers a typology of the two prevailing, but fundamentally distinct, critiques of the system:

(1) the quantitative approach (what I call the “over” frame); and

(2) the qualitative approach (what I call the “mass” frame).

The “over” frame grows from a belief that criminal law has an important and legitimate function, but that the law’s operations have exceeded that function. This critique assumes that there are optimal rates of incarceration and criminalization, but the current criminal system is sub-optimal in that it has criminalized too much and incarcerated too many. In contrast, the “mass” frame focuses on the criminal system as a socio-cultural phenomenon. This reformist frame indicates that the issue is not a mere miscalculation; rather, reforms should address how the system marginalizes populations and exacerbates both power imbalances and distributional inequities.

To show how these frames differ, this Article applies the “over” and the “mass” critique, in turn, to the maligned phenomena of mass incarceration and overcriminalization. The existing literature on mass incarceration and overcriminalization displays an elision between these two frames. Some scholars and reformers have adopted one frame exclusively, while others use the two interchangeably. No matter how much scholars and critics bemoan the troubles of mass incarceration and overcriminalization, it is hard to believe that they can achieve meaningful reform if they are talking about fundamentally different problems.

While many reformers may adopt an “over” frame in an effort to attract a broader range of support or appeal to politicians, “over” policy proposals do not reach deeper “mass” concerns. Ultimately, then, this Article argues that a pragmatic turn to the “over” frame may have significant costs in legitimating deeper structural flaws and failing to address distributional issues of race, class, and power at the heart of the “mass” critique.

Keywords: criminal law, criminal procedure, criminology, criminal justice, criminal justice reform, race, overcriminalization, mass incarceration, neoliberalism, legal theory, theories of punishment, prisons

JEL Classification: K14, K42, P16, Z10, Z18, B41, B51

Suggested Citation

Levin, Benjamin, The Consensus Myth in Criminal Justice Reform (April 1, 2018). Michigan Law Review, Forthcoming; U of Colorado Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 18-17. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3135053

Benjamin Levin (Contact Author)

University of Colorado Law School ( email )

401 UCB
Boulder, CO 80309
United States

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