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HFG Punishment Project

"The great increase in state punishment in some of the most developed countries will undoubtedly come to be seen as one of the more distinctive phenomena of the last quarter of our century," says Sean McConville, a historian of criminal justice who is directing an HFG working group on the issue of punishment.

Aggression and violence are part of the potential behavior of every human being; however, so is self-control and the preferred use of affiliative behaviors or perhaps the threat of violence in the struggle to get one's own way. Extraordinarily aggressive behavior is not the best way to assure personal status and gain, even in groups without laws against it--all animals which live in social groups have ways of punishing offenders, usually by withholding what social animals need most, society and the aid and succor of the social group. Human society has elaborated these practices into our codes of laws and punishments. However it is unlikely that most people would choose to assault and hurt other people even if they could get away with it. Why do we need punishment?

Participants are evaluating claims for the effectiveness of punishment at changing individual behaviors and of the threat of punishment at deterring violent acts. We are also discussing why people have such faith in the effectiveness of punishment and conviction that it must be a part of justice. This has been addressed in part by examining how punishment functions in domains outside the criminal justice system--in child rearing, theology, and as a system of social control in sub-state societies. Other contributors are looking at the economics of the criminal justice system and the contribution of the criminal justice system to rebuilding civil society after periods of repression and war. Several group meetings have been held and manuscripts submitted for a book which should be ready to be submitted for publication in early 1998.

Wild Cowboys

Harvard University Press has just published Robert Jackall's Wild Cowboys: Urban Marauders & the Forces of Order (1997). Jackall, Class of 1956 Professor of Sociology and Social Thought at Williams College, received an HFG grant in 1993 to study homicide and drug dealing in New York's Washington Heights. He followed police detectives and prosecutors as they independently investigated separate incidents of street violence and murder, discovered that a gang of Dominican youths, later known as the Wild Cowboys, were causing the mayhem, and came together to do justice.

The Cowboys were boyhood friends from Washington Heights, the upper-Manhattan narcotics-trafficking hub of the eastern seaboard. The gang operated a lucrative crack business in the South Bronx but eventually turned on one another in a deadly civil war that spread to three New York City boroughs.

Using a broken narrative that mirrors how the case "came at" investigators, the book chronicles, from the streets through the courtroom, the ways of knowing and acting of the detectives and prosecutors charged with making sense of apparent senselessness and bringing order to seeming chaos.

But Wild Cowboys also depicts a troubled social order marked by irreconcilable differences, one fraught with self-doubt and moral ambivalence, where the institutional logics of law and bureaucracy often have perverse consequences. Jackall sees a society in which the forces of order battle not only criminals but elites seemingly aligned with forces of disorder: community activists grab any pretext to further narrow causes; intellectuals romanticize criminals; judges refuse to lock up dangerous men; federal prosecutors relish nailing cops more than criminals; and politicians pander to the worst of our society behind rhetorics of social justice and moral probity.

Other recent or forthcoming HFG-supported books about crimes of violence:

In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio, Philippe Bourgois (1996, Cambridge University Press). Describes the violent lives of crack dealers in Spanish Harlem and analyzes the economic and subcultural forces that channel them into the underground rather than legitimate economy.

Born Fi' Dead: A Journey Through the Jamaican Posse Underworld, Laurie Gunst (1996, Henry Holt). Tells the story of the derivation of America's Jamaican drug "posses" from the Kingston gangs run by Jamaica's politicians.

Violence and Childhood in the Inner City, ed. Joan McCord (1997, Cambridge University Press). A product of an HFG working group, this volume treats the various influences in the life of a child growing up in urban disadvantage that can promote violent behavior.

Ethnicity, Crime, and Immigration, ed. Michael Tonry (1997, University of Chicago Press). A comparative examination of racial and ethnic differences in criminal offending, victimization, and discrimination in Western justice systems.

Bad Kids: The Transformation of the Juvenile Court, Barry Feld (1998, Oxford University Press). Feld argues that the juvenile court attempts to combine social welfare and penal social control in one agency but does both badly. Bad Kids proposes uncoupling the two by trying all offenders within an integrated criminal court that recognizes youthfulness as a formal mitigating factor in sentencing.

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