Strong-arm Sobriety: Addressing Precarity through Probation

Victoria Piehowski, Michelle S. Phelps

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Over the past half-century, the US welfare and penal systems have become increasingly fused modes of poverty governance. At the center of the welfare-penal continuum sits probation, a form of community supervision that operates as a central hub, directing people to both services and incarceration. Drawing on interviews with 166 adults on probation in Hennepin County, Minnesota, in 2019, we argue that the coercive care of probation is structured by the broader project of controlling alcohol and drug use among the poor. Developing the concept of strong-arm sobriety, we show how the criminal addict trope undergirds the central processes of probation: treatment, testing, and revocation. We argue that strong-arm sobriety misreads structural precarity as the result, rather than the cause, of individuals' choices. In doing so, strong-arm sobriety fails to address the circumstances that engender substance use and produces future subjects for coercive care.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)489-516
Number of pages28
JournalLaw and Social Inquiry
Issue number2
StatePublished - May 5 2023

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Thank you to the research assistants who assisted with data collection and transcription: Noura Abukhadra, Faith Adewunmi, Olufemi Akindumila, De Andre’ T. Beadle, Rodrigo Tojo Garcia, Hannah Hagen, J’Mag Karbeah, Olivia Levinson, Sara McClendon, Ingie Osman, Amber Joy Powell, James Rashid, Christopher Robertson, Lizeth Diaz Rodriguez, Alyssa Scott, and Anna Stalsberg. Funding for this data collection effort was provided by the University of Minnesota’s Grand Challenges Research Initiative; the College of Liberal Arts, Recruiting and Retaining Graduate Students from Underrepresented Groups Seed Grant; the College of Liberal Arts, Talle Faculty Research Award; and the Minnesota Population Center. Thank you to the co-principal investigators on the broader project: Rebecca Shlafer, Tyler Winkelman, Kelly Lyn Mitchell, and Rachel Hardeman. Additionally, we are grateful for the feedback of colleagues who reviewed earlier drafts of this article, including Jamila Michener, Michael Walker, Amber Joy Powell, Christopher Robertson, Caity Curry, Ryan Steel, Joshua Page, and Liz Chiarello. Finally, our deepest thanks to our participants, who generously shared their time and experiences. This article is based on research approved by the University of Minnesota Institutional Review Board.

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s), 2022. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the American Bar Foundation.


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