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A History of Constant Reform: Crime and Punishment in the Twentieth Century

Oct. 6, 2022

8 - 9 June 2023, Fribourg (Switzerland)

Deadline for applications: 15 January 2023

Although closely related, the histories of criminal justice and prisons are often studied apart. This workshop seeks to bring together historians and scholars from neighbouring disciplines working on various aspects of the history of crime, criminal justice, and incarceration in the twentieth century.

In the twentieth century, laws, legal institutions, and prison facilities seemed to be characterized by a constant process of reform. Though there were occasional accelerations and downturns, the reform movement never entirely stopped. Thus, the discourses and practices of criminality and of legal sanctions and their execution evolved substantially, while the individuals involved in the legal and penal systems – the accused, accusers, lawyers, judges, prison inmates, prison workers, and criminologists – became more diverse in terms of gender, social and geographic origin, professionalization, etc.

The goal of this workshop is to start a discussion of how reforms and changes in different steps of the criminal and penal system related to and influenced each other. Although closely related, the histories of criminal justice and prisons are often studied apart. This workshop seeks to bring together historians and scholars from neighbouring disciplines working on various aspects of the history of crime, criminal justice, and incarceration in the twentieth century, when phases of relative stability seemed to be followed by periods of rapid change. The 1970s in particular, though less well studied than previous periods of reform, seem to have been an especially intense time of debate about the criminal justice and prison systems.

We propose to follow four broad tracks to identify how different forces converged to generate moments of change in the twentieth century:

1. Visible Justice/Invisible Prisons?
In line with the dictum, “Ignorance of the law is no excuse,” making the legislative process public is one of the fundamental principles of democracy. Even before a law is adopted, every step in its creation must be publicly discussed, and after its adoption, it is supposed to be publicly available. The execution of penal sanctions on the other hand is almost entirely a black box. It takes place in areas separated from society and remains invisible to most people. In the twentieth century, making the living conditions in prisons known to the outside world was challenging, since the media paid little attention and few people cared about the inmate population, who were thought to deserve their fate. This situation was contested throughout the twentieth century by individuals and organizations both inside and outside prisons, but they were most successful in the 1970s, when anti-prison groups and other critics of the carceral system seemed to become more numerous.

What triggered the wider contestation? Were critics simply more efficient? Finding answers to such questions will lead us to examine the conditions that made the critique of the prison system possible. Prison living conditions are closely related to issues of funding. How did debates about the importance of self-financing of prisons change in the political sphere? Furthermore, has the tension between the public nature of legislative processes and the hidden nature of the penal system evolved over time? Did the democratization of politics that occurred during the twentieth century lead to a wider public involvement in the law-making process? How has this affected subordinate social groups? What were the relationships between the democratization of political life and the prison reform movement based on human rights principles?

2. Criminalization and Decriminalization
What was counted as criminal behaviour changed over the course of the twentieth century. Criminalization and decriminalization were complex processes that were related to changes in society, culture, politics, and the economy. The most famous example of criminalization of previously legal behaviour is the prohibition of alcohol consumption in the United States in the first half of the twentieth century; another is the criminalization and decriminalization of abortion. While changes in criminal laws were the most obvious expression of criminalization or decriminalization, there were also more subtle forms. For instance, increased reporting of sexual crimes in the early twentieth century led to increased visibility of behaviour that had previously gone mostly unreported. Intensified policing of public and private spaces could have a similar effect; the same is true for harsher or more lenient sentences by the courts. Moreover, the spread of new patterns of behaviour, such as ostentatious drug use by members of the counterculture, may have led to increased police activity and subsequent criminalization. In turn, the incarceration of drug addicts also posed significant problems for prisons.

What were the social, cultural, economic, and political driving forces and contexts of various forms of criminalization and decriminalization in the twentieth century? Which social groups were targeted, and which benefited? Which (political) activists lobbied for criminalization or decriminalization? And how did criminalization and decriminalization relate to historical shifts taking place in the second half of the twentieth century, such as the rise of the counterculture and the subsequent decline of middle-class mores, the increase of global migration, and the emergence of neoliberalism and right-wing populism?

3. Reform and Scientific Knowledge
Throughout the twentieth century, crime and criminal justice and punishment were subjects of scientific knowledge production. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries witnessed the rise of a well-documented naturalization and medicalization of crime and criminal justice. While sociological explanations on the social causes of crime had existed since at least the nineteenth century, medical experts began to individualize criminal behaviour by interpreting it as a sign of psychiatric illness or ‘abnormality.’ Especially in Nazi Germany, but also elsewhere, crime was racialized. Individuals who were racially classified as ‘Jews,’ ‘Gypsies,’ or ‘Slavs’ were seen as ‘naturally’ prone to criminal behaviour. Criminals – female criminals in particular– were seen as a threat to the fabric of society. In this regard, we would like to question the way women were viewed as a specific class of criminal subjects and how prisons were conceived differently for men and women over time. How was this differentiation challenged?

Starting in the 1960s, the medicalized, racist, and sexist view on crime and criminal justice came under scrutiny by proponents of the New Left. Related to this criticism, new sociological approaches started to gain influence, such as the labelling theory and the differential association theory, which focused on the interplay of crime, criminalization, and socialization in subcultures. Nevertheless, psychiatrists and their expertise still remain an important pillar in criminal procedures.

In the closing decades of the twentieth century, neoliberal theories of crime and punishment started to evolve. Following the rational choice theorem, neoliberals conceptualized criminals as rational and profit-seeking actors who freely and deliberately chose to commit crimes (as opposed to being forced by social circumstances or mental conditions) and were thus seen as fully responsible for their actions. What were the political implications of these and other developments in the knowledge production on crime, criminal justice, and punishment? How did scientific theories relate to and react to the rise of human rights and anti-racism? Did the role of psychiatrists, both as knowledge producers and as scientific experts in trials, evolve after the critique directed against them in the 1970s? How has knowledge production been influenced by the rise of neoliberalism and right-wing populism? We would also like to question the way psychiatry and psychiatric theories affected the carceral system. Did they trigger reforms of the prisons? Did they influence new conceptions of prison facilities?

4. Human Rights and Social Movement Advocacy as Driving Forces for Change?
The emergence of human rights in public discourse after the Second World War, promoted by the United Nations and the European Council, has been the driving force behind the push for minimum standards of respect for human rights in the management of prison facilities. However, historians have paid little attention to the impact of these standards on legal and prison reforms. How were these minimum standards, which entailed new obligations and a reduction of state autonomy, implemented in law and in prison facilities?

Supranational organizations were not the only ones calling for reform. In the wake of the 1968 movements, subordinate social groups demanded more attention and pushed for various forms of social discrimination such as racism and sexism in penal institutions to be addressed. In addition, legal reformers and scholars developed critiques of the law as an instrument used by the ruling classes to secure their domination. What effects did such critiques lead to in the penal system? What were the major improvements? How did social movements appeal to human rights in order to demand greater social rights? How did these movements influence the law and the execution of punishment? How did the social movement denounce injustice when it was part of the law? How were prisoners involved in the process of denunciation and reform? And finally, how do these developments relate to the increasing individualization of societies during the second half of the twentieth century?

Proposals of 300–500 words, accompanied by a short biographical note, should be sent by January 15, 2023 to the following addresses: maurice.cottier@unifr.ch and alix.heiniger@unifr.ch.

Decisions will be announced no later than February 1, 2023.

The conference will take place at the University of Fribourg June 8 and 9 2023.

Organizers: Maurice Cottier and Alix Heiniger (Department of Contemporary History, University of Fribourg).


E-Mail: maurice.cottier@unifr.ch

Source: A History of Constant Reform: Crime and Punishment in the Twentieth Century. In: H-Soz-Kult, 05.10.2022, <www.hsozkult.de/event/id/event-130079>.