Obsolescence and immanence in penal theory and policy

Michael Tonry

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

38 Scopus citations


To be useful, theories of punishment must speak to the issues of their times. Predominant modern theories centering on desert and proportionality took shape in the 1970s when they spoke to concerns about racial disparities, procedural unfairness, and beliefs in the ineffectiveness and injustice of rehabilitative programs. None of those concerns continues to galvanize policymakers, practitioners, or the general public. Punishment theories are stuck in the 1970s, speaking still to 1970s issues and unable satisfactorily to address contemporary developments such as burgeoning interest in restorative and community justice, renewed faith in the effectiveness and appropriateness of rehabilitation, and proliferation of drug and other courts aimed at changing offenders. Punishment theories sometimes influence policymakers, and often they clarify understanding of the implications of policy choices. Consequently, there is a need for the development of new theoretical frameworks that can speak to the issues and temper of these times.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1233-1275
Number of pages43
JournalColumbia Law Review
Issue number4
StatePublished - May 2005


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