Penal controls and social controls: Toward a theory of American penal exceptionalism

AuthorDavid Garland
Date01 July 2020
Published date01 July 2020
Subject MatterArticles
untitled Article
Punishment & Society
Penal controls and social
2020, Vol. 22(3) 321–352
! The Author(s) 2019
controls: Toward a theory
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1462474519881992
of American penal
David Garland
New York University, NY, USA
This article argues that to explain American penal exceptionalism, we have to consider
America’s exceptional levels of punishment together with America’s exceptional levels
of violence and disorder, while understanding both of these as outcomes of America’s
distinctive political economy. After specifying the multiple respects in which American
penality is a comparative outlier, the article develops a new theorization of modes of
penal action that reveals the extent to which the US has come to rely on penal controls
rather than other kinds of punishment. This over-reliance on penal controls is viewed
as an adaptation to the weakness of non-penal social controls in American communi-
ties. These social control deficits are, in turn, attributed to America’s ultra-liberal
political economy, which is seen as having detrimental effects for the functioning
of families and communities, tending to reduce the effectiveness of informal social
controls and to generate high levels of neighborhood disorganization and violence.
The same political economy limits the capacity of government to respond to these
structurally generated problems using the social policy interventions characteristic
of more fully developed welfare states. The result is a marked bias toward the use
of penal controls.
criminal punishment, modes of penal action, penal controls, penal exceptionalism,
political economy, social controls, state capacity
Corresponding author:
David Garland, New York University, 40 Washington Square South, 340 Vanderbilt Hall, New York, NY, USA.

Punishment & Society 22(3)
How should we explain US penal exceptionalism? This article argues that to do so,
we have to consider America’s exceptional levels of punishment together with
America’s exceptional levels of violence and disorder, while understanding both
of these as outcomes of America’s distinctive political economy. It develops an
account of the social control processes that connect the structures of political
economy with the phenomena of crime and disorder and points to limits of welfare
state capacity that make penal controls America’s default response to crime.1
My argument will be that America’s ultra-liberal political economy, with its
minimal welfare state for the poor,2 has detrimental consequences for the routine
operation of socialization, social control, and social integration in the families,
schools, and labor markets of poorer communities, particularly following the col-
lapse of inner city employment in the 1960s and 1970s. The resulting social dislo-
cations give rise, in the worst affected areas, to chronic social problems and
extraordinarily high rates of violent crime. When these problems become politically
salient—as they did in the 1980s and 1990s—the same political economy ensures
that American government authorities have a limited range of positive resources
with which to respond. The result is a recurring resort to penal controls rather than
to more positive social policy interventions. Well-established political and racial
logics reinforce these patterned choices and reproduce these social structures.
Of course, American political economy and penal policy vary across regions and
have changed over time, with notable moments of social democratic restructuring in
the 1930s and 1960s. And patterns of social control are complex, involving multiple
institutions, actors, and processes that have independent dynamics of their own.
But the general claim developed here is that the causal link between America’s
extensive market freedoms and its extraordinary penal controls is to be found in
the quality and extent of informal processes of social control—processes that are
conditioned by larger socio-economic structures and that function at a micro-social
level to prevent (or encourage) crime and maintain (or disrupt) social order.
In developing this explanation, I depart from conventional theory in three
respects. First, I reintegrate the sociology of punishment—which has become a
largely autonomous research program (Garland, 2018)—with the sociology of
crime and deviance, particularly with recent work on the social etiology of vio-
lence. Second, I view both crime and punishment within a “social control” per-
spective that highlights the collective processes through which social order is
routinely reproduced and views them as the context in which state policy operates.
Third, I show that America is an outlier with respect not just to violence but to
social problems and dislocations more generally and that these form part of the
context in which penal controls are to be explained.
Most research on America’s extraordinary reliance on criminal punishment is
historical, seeking to explain the major changes that occurred between 1975 and
2010. But American penality also raises important comparative questions because
its imprisonment rates are strikingly out of line with those of other nations

(Walmsley, 2016). The leading comparative studies show that cross-national differ-
ences in rates of incarceration are associated with differences in levels of inequality
(Wilkinson and Pickett, 2009); differences in welfare state regimes (Cavadino and
Dignan, 2005, 2014; Downes, 2012; Lappi-Seppala, 2012); and differences in vari-
eties of capitalism (Lacey, 2007; Lacey and Soskice, 2018; Sutton, 2004)—which is
to say, with various aspects of a nation’s political economy (Di Giorgi, 2012; Lacey
et al., 2018).3
If we consider the American case in the context of these general findings, the US
turns out to be an extreme value on each of the relevant dimensions—inequality,
welfare state regime, and variety of capitalism—just as it is an extreme value with
respect to rates of imprisonment. The punishment-political economy relation-
ship—which observes an association between free market economies and high
levels of punishment and conversely, between high levels of social and economic
protection and low levels of punishment—would seem, therefore, to provide a
promising analytic framework in which to explain the American case.
As Scharff-Smith and Ugelvic (2017) point out, current work on political econ-
omy and punishment does not go much beyond observing and documenting co-
variation, and we have yet to specify the mechanisms that link political economy
with penal policy. What might explain these correlations? What are the linkages
that connect specific production regimes, frameworks of social protection, and
patterns of inequality with specific forms of crime control and punishment? Who
are the actors whose conduct generates these structured outcomes and what are the
motivations, interests, and circumstances that shape their actions? The existing
literature does not satisfactorily answer these questions. Beyond invoking values
such as trust, legitimacy, and inclusiveness—which might best be viewed as atti-
tudinal concomitants of political economy rather than macro-micro linkages—
none of the comparative analyses provide us with a satisfactory theory.4
With respect to the US case, I argue that there are two major linkages connect-
ing political economy and penal policy: one indirect—mediated by weakened pro-
cesses of social control and high levels of criminal violence and disorder; the other
more direct—having to do with the limited capacities of a minimalist welfare state.
I argue that America’s ultra-liberal political economy—characterized by stark
inequalities, weakly restrained market forces, and minimal social protections—is
detrimental to the functioning of poor families and communities, tending to limit
their social control capacities and giving rise to levels of neighborhood disorgani-
zation, social dislocation, and criminal violence that are markedly higher than
those of other developed societies. Faced with these social control deficits and
the disorders to which they give rise, America’s political economy—with its
poorly funded public sector and underdeveloped welfare apparatus—also limits
the capacity and disposition of governmental agencies to respond with the social
services, social policy interventions, and “workable alternatives to imprisonment”
(Lappi-Seppala and Tonry, 2011) that are routinely deployed by more fully devel-
oped welfare states.5 The result is a default resort to policing and punishment.

Punishment & Society 22(3)
The distinctiveness of American penality
Comparative studies generally use per capita rates of incarceration as their depen-
dent variable; but if we look in more detail, we discover that American punishment
is an outlier on multiple dimensions. American authorities do not just impose more
punishment: they also punish in a distinctive way. Consider the following:
1. Twenty-nine American states and the federal government still permit capital
punishment, and a dozen states still carry out executions (Death Penalty
Information Center, 2019). By contrast, no European nation—and very few
developed ones—retains the death penalty. All 50 US states and the federal
government imprison offenders for terms of Life Without Possibility of Parole
(LWOP)—another extreme sentence banned elsewhere—with more than 50,000
inmates currently serving LWOP sentences of a...

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