American criminal laws and criminal justice systems are harsher, more punitive, more afflicted by racial disparities and injustices, more indifferent to suffering, and less respectful of human dignity than those of other Western countries. The explanations usually offered—rising crime rates in the 1970s and 1980s, public anger and anxiety, crime control politics, neoliberal economic and social policies—are fundamentally incomplete. The deeper explanations are four features of American history that shaped values, attitudes, and beliefs and produced a political culture in which suffering is fatalistically accepted and policy makers are largely indifferent to individual injustices. They are the history of American race relations, the evolution of Protestant fundamentalism, local election of judges and prosecutors, and the continuing influence of political and social values that emerged during three centuries of western expansion. The last, encapsulated in Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier thesis,” is interwoven with the other three. Together, they explain long-term characteristics of American criminal justice and the extraordinary severity of penal policies and practices since the 1970s.
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