Hadar Aviram on Reformer Intent in Criminal Justice

Published on: Author: Kate Bloch

In a thoughtful, recent article, “What were ‘They’ Thinking, and Does it Matter? Structural Inequality and Individual Intent in Criminal Justice Reform,” published in July, 2019, in Law & Social Inquiry, my colleague Professor Hadar Aviram turns a critical eye toward narratives that investigate the motivations of reformers in the carceral domain. To evaluate these narratives, she applies an overarching framework developed by Stanley Cohen in Visions of Social Control: Crime, Punishment and Classification. Using Cohen’s rubrics, Professor Aviram reviews several texts that analyze the intentions of powerful actors in various social-control reform endeavors. She recognizes and insightfully explores the challenge of employing macro-structuralist versus micro-contextual lenses to evaluate reformers’ intentions. In particular, she acknowledges the difficulty of looking through both lenses concurrently.

In the latter portion of her analysis, Professor Aviram interrogates two recent scholarly works. The first is James Forman’s Locking Up Our Own (2017), and the second is Heather Schoenfeld’s Building the Prison State (2018). Each, she argues, furnishes a flexible and nuanced enough narrative to account for a complexity and multiplicity of forces undergirding reformers’ actions. For each, she extolls the virtue of engaging with individual figures “on their own terms,” which enhances the evaluator’s ability to appreciate and incorporate both macro and micro perspectives on the reformers’ goals.

To illustrate her point about the value of “pausing before attributing bad will” to such reformers, Professor Aviram employs the contemporary example of the Ban-the-Box initiative, which sought to eliminate “the requirement to admit to a criminal record at the initial screening level for employment.” She describes key intentions behind the initiative as aiming to “ameliorate the ways in which discrimination on the basis of criminal records disproportionately burden people of color” and notes that “[m]any progressives strongly supported Ban-the-Box policies in the hopes of bringing about a reality in which people with criminal records were not excluded from employment and opportunity.” Professor Aviram notes, however, that recent research suggests that the initiative may have failed to achieve those intentions. Her point is that such failure does not negate the good motivations. Instead, she suggests that examples like Ban the Box “as well as the examples Forman and Schoenfeld discuss, remind us that some humility is in order whenever assessing failed criminal justice reforms.” She endorses this approach going forward, proposing that, absent evidence to the contrary, “good faith is assumed and the blame game is kept to a minimum.”

In sum, Professor Aviram’s article not only evinces deep familiarity with the interdisciplinary space in which she writes, but also offers valuable commentary on the benefits of using more than one lens to examine the intentions of reformers in the criminal justice domain, even if one must shift from one lens to another seriatim, rather than being able to perceive the whole through multiple lenses at a single glance.