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Justice, Mercy and Mass Incarceration

Mass incarceration is one of the most pressing issues regarding racial justice in the United States. Our excessive use of criminal punishment renders us an extreme outlier among democratic nations. It affects nearly all groups in our society, but fall disproportionately on racial minorities, wreaking havoc on the lives of individuals, their families and their communities. This course is an inquiry into the causes of this strange and destructive policy. It consists of three major units. The first explores the theory of punishment and the theory of incarceration as a mode of punishment, using philosophy, history, sociology and literature. The second provides a description of the scope and impact of mass incarceration as it exists at present, based on written descriptions, documentary films, and visitors involved in the issue. The final unit then considers a range of theories that have been advanced to explain American mass incarceration. The course requirements are participation in the seminar discussions and three papers – two short ones during the semester and a longer one at the end -- where students can express their own ideas and develop their own theory about mass incarceration.