Sociology Professor Cautions Against Making False Distinctions Between Incarcerated Youth and Adults

With the U.S. incarcerated population projected to grow by three percent in the next three years, criminal justice reforms must go beyond granting leniency to young offenders and “extend mercy to all individuals who have transgressed the law,” says Alexandra Cox in a Jan. 14 article published in the online Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.

Alexandra Cox

Alexandra Cox

In “The Perils of False Distinctions Between Juveniles and Adults in Prison,” Cox, an associate professor of sociology, advocates for criminal justice reforms that address the “politically unpalatable” issue of sentencing for violent offenders.

Cox cites a recent National Academy of Sciences report that concludes that “lengthy prison sentences are ineffective as a crime control measure,” and argues that reducing sentencing for violent offenders is the only way to reduce mass incarceration and achieve social justice.

As liberal reformers and the public media advocate for the need to keep youth and nonviolent offenders out of the criminal justice system, they have created a false distinction in the public’s mind between the “dangerous and the ‘rest’”, notes Cox.

“While many support the idea of prison reform due to their exposure to the growing national media on the subject their sense of punitiveness remains unflappable,” Cox writes. “Students consistently draw distinctions between individuals accused of drug offenses and those they see to be deserving of prison time, and they express outrage when they learn about countries where life sentences stop at 10 and sometimes 20 years.”

Cox argues that violent offenders should be granted “a chance to live their lives, and perhaps even become college students, so that they and others can help us build knowledge about why and how violent crime begins and ends.”

At New Paltz, Cox teaches Crime and Society, Criminological Theory, Juvenile Delinquency, and Race Crime and Punishment.  This semester, she co-teaches an “Inside Out” course with Karanja Carroll, an associate professor of black studies, at a local juvenile facility with New Paltz students and students inside.  Cox’s research is about young people’s experiences of being governed in the juvenile justice system.

Cox also published (with Jane Spinak) an article advocating for independent oversight of New York’s juvenile justice system on the website on Jan. 26.