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50 years after the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement

From 15-18 November, members of the American Society of Criminology (ASC) will gather in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for the ASC’s annual conference. The theme of this year’s meeting is Crime, Legitimacy, and Reform: 50 Years After the President’s Commission. Specifically, 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of the final report of the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, appointed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965. The aim of this report was to gather evidence with regard to the problem of crime in the United States and the federal government’s role in fighting it and reforming the nation’s criminal justice system. Entitled, The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society the report contained 200 recommendations that, according to the Commission, collectively constituted “a call for a revolution in the way America thinks about crime.” The Commission called for more training and education for law enforcement; change to juvenile justice and adult corrections centered on rehabilitative ideals; and greater research on the causes, consequences, and responses to crime.

Given that there are more than 1,000 sessions and roundtable discussions on this year’s program, the ASC conference itself stands as evidence of the impact of the President’s Commission. But if one peruses the Commission’s report, it quickly becomes clear that their conceptualization of crime was a narrow one; the Commission was largely concerned with street crime, including drug offenses. This is perhaps not surprising, since the Commission was appointed in the wake of civil rights demonstrations and riots to which law enforcement responded with sometimes deadly force. Fifty years later, a substantial number of papers at the ASC conference will address the continuing problem of police use of deadly force, particularly against African Americans, which, in itself, should prompt sober reflection among conference attendees.

Conspicuously absent from the Commission’s report was any discussion of gender-based violence, including intimate partner violence and sexual assault. It was not until the late 1970s that this problem began to get sustained attention, chiefly as a result of the women’s movement and feminist consciousness rising, and political activism. Feminist criminologists published research documenting the prevalence of gender-based violence, its consequences for victims, and the ineffective, and typically, victim-blaming criminal justice response that essentially allowed perpetrators to act with impunity. The ASC’s Division on Women and Crime (DWC), which was established in 1984 by feminist criminologists interested in studying gender, crime, and criminal justice, is now the largest ASC division, and sponsors numerous paper sessions at the annual conference that address gender-based violence. But now presentations on gender-based violence are found throughout the program, not only in DWC-sponsored sessions, which indicates the tremendous growth in this area of research in the relatively short span of about four decades. Many of these presentations will emphasize the intersectional nature of gender-based violence – that is, how gender intersects with other sites of social inequality (e.g., race and ethnicity, social class, sexual orientation, age, immigration status) to produce differences in victimization, perpetration, and criminal justice responses. Moreover, a substantial number of presentations will address cross-national differences in gender-based violence.

As ASC conference attendees reflect on the legacy of the President’s Commission this year, it behooves us, especially in the contemporary political climate, to critically examine specific social constructions of crime, and the (sometimes deadly) consequences of ignoring the salience of intersecting inequalities in criminal offending, victimization, and the workings of the criminal justice system.

Featured image credit: people woman shadow by StockSnap. Public domain via Pixabay.

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