Michigan Law Review
Benjamin Levin, The Consensus Myth in Criminal Justice Reform, 117 Mich. L. Rev. 259 (2018), available at https://scholar.law.colorado.edu/faculty-articles/1205.
It has become popular to identify a “consensus” on criminal justice reform, but how deep is that consensus, actually? This Article argues that the purported consensus is much more limited than it initially appears. 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 maps two prevailing, but fundamentally distinct, critiques of criminal law: (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 suboptimal in that it has criminalized too much and incarcerated too many. In contrast, the “mass” frame focuses on criminal law as a sociocultural 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 scholars may adopt an “over” frame in an effort to attract a broader range of support or appeal to politicians, “over” policy proposals do not necessarily reach deeper “mass” concerns. Ultimately, 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.
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