Criminal Justice Reform and Inequality

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The criminal legal system is a “stratifying institution” insofar as it reflects inequalities by selecting already marginalized people into the system, worsens existing inequalities via a host of criminal punishment and conditions of confinement mechanisms, and creates new inequalities through patterns of isolation for formerly incarcerated people and spillover effects for those close to them. Because it is impossible to separate mass criminalization from the patterns of inequality that precede it and ill-advised to treat inequalities created by mass criminalization as somehow separate from much longer legacies of marginalization and social exclusion, the prospects for criminal justice reform are difficult to predict. This essay suggests that criminal justice reform strategies centered on harm reduction might reasonably reduce how much criminal justice involvement worsens existing inequalities or creates new ones. Dramatically reducing inequalities in initial contacts with the system will be more difficult because that would require significant investments and improvements in other social systems. Moreover, because the criminal legal system is not a system at all, reform efforts must be multi-pronged and target all parts of the system to appreciably reduce inequality.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1186-1203
Number of pages18
JournalAmerican Journal of Criminal Justice
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Law


  • Criminal legal system
  • Stratification and inequality
  • Stratifying institutions


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