Crime, Law and Social Change

, Volume 54, Issue 2, pp 187–196 | Cite as

From left realism to mass incarceration: the need for pragmatic vision in criminal justice policy

  • Michael JacobsonEmail author
  • Lynn ChancerEmail author

Introduction: from left realism to mass incarceration

Looking back on the 1980s from the budget-strapped perspective of the “Great Recession” of 2007–2010 puts the passionate debates between British criminologists of the “left realist” versus “left idealist” persuasions in thought-provoking retrospect. In the earlier period, so-called “realists” were critical of “idealists” for overlooking the seriousness of people’s experiences with crime and violence. Jock Young was among others who derided a tendency of radicals to sometimes treat crime as though an ideological capitalistic sleight-of-hand; they contended that, in so doing, the left in countries like Britain and the US harmed itself by failing to confront actual neighborhood problems of crime and violence [1]. But, in this article, we contend that the highly abstracted level of the left ‘realist versus idealist’ debate created, and continues to sustain, a false and mostly academic dichotomy. As we will show through the example of a...


Violent Crime Great Recession Prison Population Public Sociology Criminal Justice Policy 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


  1. 1.
    Young, J. (1997). Left realist criminology: Radical in its analyses, realist in its policy. In M. Maguire, R. Morgan & R. Reiner (Eds.), Oxford: Handbook of Criminology, 2nd edition. USA: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Beckett, K. (1999). Making crime pay: law and order in contemporary American politics. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Merton, R. K. (1968). Social theory and social structure. New York: Free.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Jacobson, M. (2005). Downsizing prisons: How to reduce crime and end mass incarceration. New York: New York University Press.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Travis, J. (2005). But they all come back: Facing the challenges of prisoner re-entry. Washington: Urban Institute.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Petersilia, J. (2009). When prisoners come home: Parole and prisoner re-entry. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Langan, P., & Levin, D. (2002). Recidivism of prisoners released in 1994. Washington: US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Chancer, L. (2005). High profile crimes: When legal cases become social causes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Tonry, M. (2006). Thinking about crime: Sense and sensibility in American penal culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics online. (2008). Attitudes toward the most important problems facing the country, 1984–2008. Table 2. Available at
  11. 11.
    National Governors Association and the National Association of State Budget Officers, Fiscal Survey of States. (June 2010). Washington, DC. (vii).Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Prison Count 2010, Pew Center on the States. (April 2010). Available at (
  13. 13.
    Gottschalk, M. (2010). Cell blocks & red ink: mass incarceration, the great recession and penal reform. Daedalus, 139(3), 62–73.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 14.
    Beck, A., & Harrison, P. (2001). Prisoners in 2000. Washington: Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Sabol, W., West, H., & Cooper, M. (2009). Prisoners in 2008. Washington: Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Crime in the United States, Uniform Crime Reports. 1995–2009. Washington, D.C.: US Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Bureau of Justice Statistics and FBI Uniform Crime Reports, 2000–2009.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Parenti, C. (1994). Lockdown America: Police and prisons in the age of crisis. London: Verso.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    Western, B. (2007). Punishment and inequality in America. New York: Russell Sage.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Wacquant, L. (2009). Punishing the poor: The neoliberal government of social insecurity. Durham: Duke University Press.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    Aos, S., Miller, M., & Drake, E. (2006). Evidence-based public policy options to reduce future prison construction, criminal justice costs, and crime rates. Olympia: Washington State Institute for Public Policy.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Vera Institute of JusticeNew YorkUSA
  2. 2.Department of SociologyHunter CollegeNew YorkUSA

Personalised recommendations