The Great Experiment and the Great Reckoning: Decarceration and the Legal Reform of Mass Incarceration
Scholarship on mass incarceration in the U.S. has surged over recent decades, for good reason. This research pivots attention to prison downsizing and decarceration as emergent social facts in the 21st century. Prisoner rights litigation in federal court (Brown v. Plata 2011), combined with subsequent state law and policy innovations, have made California the current epicenter. Dubbed “The Great Experiment” in public and scholarly commentary, California’s 2011 Realignment (Assembly Bill 109) devolved criminal justice supervision from the state to the county level, making counties responsible for the penalties they impose on a sizeable class of offenses. This research investigates how California’s 58 counties responded, focusing analysis on a key question: will “The Great Experiment” result in system-wide decarceration, or the relocation of incarceration to alternative institutional sites, such as local jails? Multiple methods are used to describe and explain different responses and identify local conditions that appear to have made decarceration possible in some places but not others. Theoretical and policy implications drawn from this contemporary case of legal reform return scholars to foundational questions about the social organization of governmental power and the dialectics of institutional change and resistance, urging the field to reckon with decarceration as a distinct social process with consequences for stratification and inequality, community wellbeing, and human dignity.
Anjuli Verma is a Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellow in Jurisprudence & Social Policy at UC Berkeley. She holds a Ph.D. in Criminology, Law and Society from the University of California, Irvine, where her dissertation project was awarded funding by the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Justice. Her research examines punishment, law, and inequality from an interdisciplinary perspective using multiple methods. Anjuli’s work appears in Law & Society Review, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Ethnography, The British Journal of Criminology, The Oxford Handbook on Prisons and Imprisonment, The American Journal of Bioethics and is forthcoming in Sociological Perspectives and The Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice. She will join the University of California, Santa Cruz as an Assistant Professor of Politics in July 2018.