Department Colloquium: Becky Pettit on Illusions of Justice: Crime and Punishment in a Model Reform State

Pettit is the Barbara Pierce Bush Regents Professor of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at Austin. She is a sociologist, trained in demographic methods, with interests in social inequality broadly defined.

Abstract: Two decades of crime declines in the United States and significant and sustained policy attention to criminal justice reform has led some observers to suggest that the U.S. is reconsidering its experiment in mass incarceration. Most Americans are at the lowest risk of victimization in a generation and some states, like Texas, have attracted outsized attention for reform efforts to reduce the number of people held in state prisons and jails, decrease sentence lengths and time served, and offer community-based supervision and non-custodial sanctions. However, and despite significant rhetoric of criminal justice reform, incarceration and criminal justice contact in the United States more broadly – and the Lonestar state specifically – remains historically and comparatively high. Texas sanctions more people each year through the criminal justice system than live in Wyoming, Vermont, North Dakota, Alaska, South Dakota, Delaware, and Montana combined. In this paper, I examine whether and how contemporary criminal justice policy in Texas influences exposure to the criminal justice system. I consider how recent reforms in criminal justice policy and practice impact different demographic groups, influence accounts of inequality, and align with principles of justice.