De-Policing America’s Youth: Disrupting Criminal Justice Policy Feedbacks That Distort Power and Derail Prospects

Date01 September 2019
Published date01 September 2019
AuthorVesla M. Weaver,Amanda Geller
Subject MatterPrescriptions: Criminal Justice
190 ANNALS, AAPSS, 685, September 2019
DOI: 10.1177/0002716219871899
Criminal Justice
Feedbacks That
Distort Power
and Derail
871899ANN The Annals of the American AcademyDe-Policing America’s Youth
The standard account of policy feedback holds that social
policy can be self-reinforcing: policies provide resources
that promote economic security and well-being, and they
also encourage beneficiaries to engage with government.
Criminal justice policies have typically had the opposite
effect: they embolden those with interests in a punitive
policy agenda, while disempowering those most affected by
the policies. This is of particular concern for children and
adolescents in race-class subjugated communities (RCS),
whose first encounters with government beyond public
schooling often come through police contact and carry
adverse social and political consequences at a critical devel-
opmental stage. In this article, we reimagine youth engage-
ment with the state, arguing for substantial reductions in
police surveillance of young people and for the promotion
of youth attachment to civic life. We call for an investment
in institutions, both state-based and community-based, that
reinforce political inclusion and civic belonging.
Keywords: policing; criminal justice; youth; civic
engagement; policy feedbacks; commu-
nity building; race-class subjugation
Policy feedback scholarship generally centers
on redistributive policies that have self-
reinforcing dynamics. A standard argument of
this scholarship is that social provision not only
has the effect of expanding human flourishing by
Vesla M. Weaver is Bloomberg Distinguished Associate
Professor of Political Science and Sociology at Johns
Hopkins University. She is coauthor of Arresting
Citizenship: The Democratic Consequences of American
Crime Control (University of Chicago Press 2014)
and Creating a New Racial Order: How Immigration,
Multiracialism, Genomics, and the Young Can Remake
Race in America (Princeton University Press 2012).
Amanda Geller is a clinical associate professor of sociol-
ogy at New York University. Her research examines the
intersection of criminal justice and social inequality,
with a focus on policing and incarceration. Her work
has appeared in a variety of academic outlets, as well as
in written reports and presentations to local, state, and
federal policy-makers.
ensuring good health and economic security, but it also enhances political capacity,
confidence in government, and a sense that individuals are rights-bearing citizens
(Mettler 2002; Campbell 2003). Social provision often generates powerful groups
that help to sustain the policies and mobilize when they are threatened (i.e., Social
Security and the AARP). This feedback for citizens and the groups representing
them are most evident when the policies and practices in question are visible to the
public. But as social provision takes place through increasingly indirect expendi-
tures, many progressive policies today submerge the role of government, encourag-
ing Americans to see government as distant and inept, thereby undermining the
potential development of strong progressive coalitions (Mettler 2011). The argu-
ment, therefore, is that visible provision and the feedbacks that ensue are desirable
because progressive policies often further strong progressive coalitions and “create
favorable political dynamics” (Hacker and Pierson, this volume).
Policy Feedback in the Criminal Justice Domain
Criminal justice policy has also been characterized by strong policy feedback, creat-
ing long-standing policy arrangements and institutions that endure over time
(Weaver 2012; Gottschalk 2006; cf. Dagan and Teles 2016). It too is an area where
policies can be thought of as producing citizens, affecting their positioning, civic
habits, and identities. However, in marked contrast to the citizen-enhancing conse-
quences of many social policies, contemporary policing practices and crime control
policies have tended to deter engagement, cement inequality, and confer adverse
legal and political socialization (Lerman and Weaver 2014; Western 2006). These
policies give rise to pitched asymmetries of power, emboldening groups who do not
bear the direct adverse effects of policing and punishment and diminishing the
power of those who do. The criminal justice domain, then, is one with a tremen-
dous need for the disruption of these powerful feedbacks, to move from adverse
feedback dynamics (in which policies undermine citizen voice and give rise to
negative political socialization) to constructive ones, where public policy and politi-
cal arrangements activate race-class subjugated (RCS) communities and communi-
cate that they are worthy of civic regard and incorporation.
In this article, we outline avenues to transform the “policing state” (Epp 2016),
with a focus on youth. Our current politics, with its bipartisan disavowal of the
status quo, is conducive to imagining alternatives to punitive responses to social
problems. Before we outline our proposals—one focused on limiting contact
between America’s youth in RCS communities and surveillant state authorities and
one focused on fostering their civic attachment—it is important to understand the
four key ways in which the feedback dynamics of criminal justice policies differ
from the feedbacks of progressive policy designs. We then return to the specific
experiences and needs of youth in discussing opportunities for reform.
1. Criminal justice policies have generated feedback that reinforces punitive
policy approaches and institutional expansion and stimulates the power of
Scholars often regard the 1960s and its aftermath as the era when a civil rights
state was established and institutionalized, the heady days of rights expansions
and protections (King and Lieberman 2017); recent work also demands that we
understand this as the key period when the carceral state was institutionalized
(Hinton 2016; Murakawa 2014; Gottschalk 2006; Schoenfeld 2018).
The policies put into place by cities, states, and the federal government over
the last five decades built an incredibly dense set of institutions dedicated to the
oversight of vulnerable Americans. Criminal justice policies created a new politi-
cal constituency, strengthening police unions, correctional organizations, prose-
cutors, and companies attached to the business of managing and housing inmates
and cementing their coordination with one another (Gottschalk 2016; Page 2011;
Weaver 2012). Alongside a “punitive” political ideology that crossed party lines,
these policies were easy to pass and incredibly difficult to undo. As many in the
criminal justice field know, “When you build it, they will come.”
The policies—from federal grants for state prison construction to sentencing
policies that would keep those prisons filled—gave rise to a powerful criminal
justice lobby and set of organizations with interests in solidifying their position at
the same time as it diminished the power of opponents and displaced the influ-
ence of citizens groups (Gottschalk 2016). This feedback was not, as some jour-
nalistic accounts would have it, simply about the pecuniary benefits for private
prison companies, the bail industry, or companies producing electronic monitor-
ing ankle bracelets and Taser; indeed, state governments and the public sector
were the primary beneficiaries (Pfaff 2017). In some states, as many as one in
seven public sector employees works for the state department of corrections, and
they receive $30 billion in salary and benefits.
The criminal justice policy environment therefore reflects the interest group
terrain formed by policies that invested in punishment and surveillance. Federal
crime bills, once a rare occurrence and with few groups showing up to testify,
soon attracted hundreds of new criminal justice–related associations and agen-
cies supporting further endowments (Weaver 2012). This, combined with institu-
tional obstacles to passing progressive criminal justice policy, has meant that
punitive politics has governed with little opposition until recently (Miller 2016).
This is particularly apparent in policies related to incarceration, by which the
state capacity and physical structures to process, house, and release people cre-
ated abundant spoils for new political interests, which in turn made later policies
to further grow the carceral state more likely (Gottschalk 2006; Weaver 2012).
But it is also true of policing, even if scholars have been slower to appreciate the
policy feedbacks in the lower reaches of criminal justice.
Police have accrued a “considerable institutional presence” and political rele-
vance over the past half century (Epp 2016). Dramatic changes in policing along-
side new revenue streams to police agencies triggered an unbridled expansion in
the capacity, scope, and authority of police over the past several decades. This

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