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The Categorical Imperative as a Decarceral Agenda

By Jessica M. Eaglin. Full Text.

Despite recent modest reductions in state prison populations, Franklin Zimring argues in his forthcoming book that mass incarceration remains persistent and intractable. As a path forward, Zimring urges states to adopt pragmatic, structural reforms that incentivize the reduction of prison populations through a “categorical imperative,” meaning, by identifying subcategories of offenders best suited for diversion from prison sentences at the state level. This decarceral method is at odds with popular sentencing reforms in the states. By exploring the tensions be-tween reform trends in practice and Zimring’s proscription, this Essay illuminates a deeper concern with sentencing reforms in the era of mass incarceration. Reforms focused on categorizing offenders can obscure and sustain policymakers’ persistent tendency to frame social problems as matters of crime and punishment. Recognizing this shortcoming up-front has important implications for scholars and policymakers alike when contemplating the methodologies that should inform sentencing re-forms going forward.