Matthew Clair. Privilege and Punishment in an Era of Mass Criminalization

via Zoom

The number of Americans arrested, brought to court, and incarcerated has skyrocketed in recent decades. Criminal defendants come from all races and economic walks of life, but they experience punishment in vastly different ways. How and why is the criminal court process unequal? This talk draws on findings from my book Privilege and Punishment: How Race and Class Matter in Criminal Court (Princeton University Press, November 2020). Drawing on fieldwork and interviews in the Boston court system, I show that lawyers and judges often silence, coerce, and punish disadvantaged defendants when they try to learn their legal rights and advocate for themselves. These dynamics reveal how unwritten institutional and organizational norms devalue the exercise of legal rights among the disadvantaged, and that ensuring effective legal representation is no guarantee of justice. Drawing on other research and activism on the courts as an instrument of racialized social control and extraction, I conclude with reflections on how scholars, policymakers, and organizers could reimagine the criminal courts in relation to the movement to abolish police and prisons.


Matthew Clair is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and (by courtesy) the Law School. His scholarship broadly examines how cultural meanings and interactions reflect, reproduce, and challenge various dimensions of social inequality, legal violence, and injustice. Dr. Clair's research has been published in Criminology, California Law ReviewLaw & Social Inquiry, Social Science & Medicine, and Social Forces and has been supported by the National Science Foundation. He has received awards from the American Sociological Association, the American Society of Criminology, the Law & Society Association, and the Society for the Study of Social Problems. Prior to joining Stanford, Dr. Clair was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Law School’s Quattrone Center. He holds an A.B. in Government from Harvard College and an A.M. and Ph.D. in Sociology from Harvard University.