SAGE Journal Articles
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Abstract: Research on American criminal justice often concludes that the U.S. penal system was largely guided by the “rehabilitative ideal,” the philosophy that punishment should reform inmates and equip them to lead law-abiding lives, through the twentieth century preceding the rise of mass incarceration. This article complicates this narrative by evaluating the intellectual origins of the rehabilitative ideal and demonstrating that it was built on theoretical premises justifying punitive politics from its inception. The ideal has always relied on distinguishing curable offenders from incorrigible ones who cannot be reformed and warrant harsher punishment. This has guided American state development in punitive directions throughout the twentieth century. Progressive era indeterminate sentencing reforms were geared toward both containing and reforming offenders, the eugenics movement of the early twentieth century relied on the idea of criminal incorrigibility to advocate for compulsory sterilization statutes, and anxieties about incorrigibility justified punitive features of the draconian federal sentencing reforms of the 1970s and 1980s. This history indicates that a full revival of the rehabilitative ideal is unlikely to check contemporary punitive political impulses, especially given that two political and ideational currents currently driving American penal policy--neoliberalism and bio-criminology--comport with the punitive facets of rehabilitative penology.