POL S 464 A: The Politics of American Criminal Justice

Summer Term: 
Meeting Time: 
MTWTh 9:10am - 11:50am
* *

Syllabus Description:

Pol S 464 —Politics of the American Criminal Justice System:

Race and the Carceral State


University of Washington

Summer 2020

Mon-Thu, 9:10-11:50AM


Instructor: Sean Kim Butorac, sbutorac@uw.edu                  Office Hours: Mon & Thu, 12-1PM                                        


Course Description & Objectives

The United States imprisons more people than any other nation. More than 2.2 million Americans (1 in every 110) are behind bars, and another 4.7 million are on probation or parole. The effects of mass incarceration are racially disparate—although Black people constitute on 13% of the U.S. population, they account for 40% of the U.S. prison population. The depth and scope of these punitive developments have led many scholars to term this range of practices, policies, public and private institutions, “the carceral state.” But where did the carceral state come from? How was it created and by whom? What forms does it take and how far does it extend? How have punitive policy and our shared understandings of criminality informed the making of racial categories? How have the citizens and activists disproportionately targeted by the carceral state responded to its development?


This course tackles these questions into two parts. The first half is devoted to tracing the rise of the carceral state from the Antebellum Era, through Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Era, up to the War on Drugs. This unit draws out the racialized dimensions of crime and punishment in the United States, exploring the relationship between punitive policy, institutional development, and race-making. The second half of the course seeks to understand the varied ways that the individuals, groups, and communities disproportionately targeted and affected by these developments have resisted the carceral state. To that end, we explore slave resistance in the Antebellum Era, early NAACP mobilization against lynching, prison activism during the Civil Rights Era, and the genesis of Black Lives Matter. In exploring these developments, our objectives are as follows:

  1. To track and delineate the history of mass incarceration in the United States and its relationship to the history of black politics and black political mobilization.
  2. To explore the relationship(s) between racial formation, institutional development, and democratic political engagement, focusing on the ways in which these processes inform and subvert each other.
  3. To strengthen our argumentative writing, speaking, and command of English prose through careful and sustained practice.


Catalog Description: 
Political forces and value choices associated with the enforcement of criminal law. Distribution of resources among participants in the criminal justice system (e.g., police, attorneys, defendants, and judges). Understanding and evaluation of the interaction of criminal justice processes with the political system.
Department Requirements: 
American Politics Field
GE Requirements: 
Individuals and Societies (I&S)
Last updated: 
April 24, 2020 - 9:05pm