Victimizing Offenders and Criminalizing Victimhood: Narratives of Mass Incarceration in a “Post-Racial” Era

Sarah E. Ochs, Kristin Reed

Abstract

Much conflict resolution literature largely views crime in domestic, American, “conflict free” communities as a problem somewhat outside its scope of intervention or analysis. Scholars often fail to question normative assumptions about criminality and victimhood, and their work reflects narratives of the “criminal” as an independent actor and the “crime” as an act of unidirectional harm. To address crime, the United States has chosen mass incarceration, out of many possible approaches, which has severe implications for the social and self-perception of both victims and offenders. In this paper we argue that much conflict literature on crime and mass incarceration fails to identify these lasting perceptions and their effect on policy and law. Using narrative analysis, we show that mass incarceration is a product of a protracted latent conflict, clearly sustained by structural and cultural violence, and held in place by generations of public narratives. Our argument illustrates how mass incarceration falls outside common conceptualizations of conflict, often victimizing criminals, criminalizing victimhood, and complicating the victim/offender dichotomy. We use Virginia’s parole reinstatement review process, initiated by Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe in June 2014, as the site of our analysis. Our methods are applicable on a larger scale across the United States, and the implications of our findings are nationally relevant. “Crime,” as usually figured in the U.S., is reliant on victimhood, just as it is reliant on an identifiable offender. Rethinking crime as a product of conflict allows for flexible interpretation, with less defined roles for those participating in and affected by criminal events. Rethinking narrative framing of crime illustrates the deep impact narrative-as-intervention can have for conflict resolution practitioners and theorists, as well as the personal experiences and legal outcomes of all participants. Conceptualizing crime in this way and integrating it into conflict analysis frameworks has profound consequences: It offers analysts and practitioners better tools for identifying and responding to the nuances of crime in American environments. It also allows us new perspectives on race and class as the politics of crime and victimhood emerge.  

Keywords

Race; Mass Incarceration; Conflict

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