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Tonry’s Book Thinking About Crime: Sense and Sensibility in American Penal Culture

In brief, the three foremost ideas that are being promoted in Tonry’s (2004) book Thinking about crime: Sense and sensibility in American penal culture can be outlined as follows:

  1. The penal reforms that had taken place within the system of American jurisprudence, during the 20th century (and especially during this century’s last half), were brought about by constant shifts in public sensibilities rather than by rationale-driven considerations aimed at combating crime: “Long-term trends in social values and public attitudes, and short-term effects of moral panics, influence how Americans think about crime and punishment” (p. 5). Such a situation cannot be thought of as fully appropriate, because people namely can rationalize crime and not their tendency to think of it in clearly emotional terms, which should serve as the legal foundation for designing penal policies.
  2. The so-called ‘tough on crime’ legislations, which had been passed by policy-makers through the seventies and eighties, were not meant to reduce the country’s crime rates as much as they were meant to increase this policy-makers personal popularity with intellectually marginalized masses of potential voters: “Populist punitiveness exists…. and it explains why governments adopt harsh policies and why harsh policies are well received” (p. 52). It is needless to mention, of course, that the concept of populist punitiveness has very little to do with the formally assumed notion that penal policies serve the purpose of ensuring justice in society.
  3. The tendency for penal sentencing in America to become ever-harsher, as time goes by, does not correlate with a dialectically predetermined tendency for the country’s crime rate to decline in proportional progression to the flow of time. Hence, the author’s thesis: “Current policies are too severe, waste lives and money, and often produce unjust results” (p. 3). According to Tonry, American society has grown ripe to revise the conceptual legitimacy of many of today’s penal policies and legislations.

The arguments that are being put forward in Tonry’s book can be best referred to as fully objective. After all, one does not have to hold a Ph.D. in criminology to be aware of the simple fact that, instead of serving the purpose of correcting criminals, America’s jails function as nothing less than the ‘academies of crime’. Therefore, we can only agree with Tonry’s suggestion that the functioning of the American penal system must be adjusted to correlate with the notion of sanity – it is only after this is being achieved, that we will be in a position to expect from this system’s functioning to yield socially beneficial results.

Tonry’s thesis fully supports Walker’s assertion that crime policy analysis suffers from both lacks of evidentiary standards from which to evaluate current and proposed public policies and also from the lack of good ideas about how to go about solving crime problems. The reason for this is simple – the very notion of criminal punitiveness, upon which the designing of the country’s penal policies continues to be based, derives out of ‘good-ole’ Christian assumption that ‘redemption’ is the pathway towards ‘salvation’. Yet, this assumption is being inconsistent with how recent breakthroughs in the fields of biology, genetics, and sociology expose the very nature of the crime.

Even as far back as at the end of the 19th century, the founder of Positive Criminology Cesare Lombroso was able to prove beyond any reasonable doubt that one’s strongly defined criminal mindedness is nothing but simply an extrapolation of his or her biological atavism – the lower people are being placed on the ladder of evolution, the more their existential mode appears to be affected by the sheer strength of their animalistic urges. It is not a coincidence that most gruesome crimes, such as gang rape, for example, are being usually referred to by Medias as ‘bestial’, ‘savage’ and ‘inhuman’ – those who commit them only formally belong to the species of Homo Sapiens. And, it goes without saying, of course, that it would be utterly naïve to expect atavistic individuals to become ‘corrected’, on the account of being implanted with the sense of guilt, while serving time in jail – these people’s lowered intellectual abilities will prevent them from being able to realize what the notion of guilt stands for, in the first place.

This is exactly the reason why, despite taking pride in being the freest country in the world, America simultaneously features the world’s largest jail population – it appears that country’s Bible-thumping politicians, known for their intellectual arrogance, are simply unwilling to recognize the counter-productive essence of ‘tough on crime measures. Nevertheless, as time goes by, more and more of America’s criminologists and ordinary citizens get to realize that, to retain its functional legitimacy, the conceptual foundation of the country’s penal policies must be thoroughly revised. As Feeley and Simon (1992) had put it in their article: “The new penology is neither about punishing nor about rehabilitating individuals. It is about identifying and managing unruly groups… Its goal is not to eliminate crime but to make it tolerable through systemic coordination” (p. 452). After all, we do not go about reducing the risk for people to be attacked by crocodiles by the mean of sentencing cannibal-crocodiles to life in prison or by publically electrocuting them – we simply put warning signs along rivers and lakes where crocodiles are known to dwell, so that people would refrain from considering to take a plunge there.

The ideas, contained in Tonry’s book, fully support the soundness of my view on Rockefeller Laws as nothing but a byproduct of Bible-thumping politicians’ intellectual inadequacy. It is clear to me that those who helped pass these laws in 1973, were unaware of even the basics of biology, sociology, and psychology. For example, biologists know that the percentage of drug-abusers in human societies and also in societies of primates (our closest biological relatives) is a stable constant and equals to 15%-20% out the whole population – this is the matter of biology, not the matter of ‘morality’s decline’. Therefore, it is only utterly ignorant people who may seriously believe that sentencing drug traffickers and drug abusers to lengthy terms in jail may somehow help society to solve the problem of some of its members being addicted to drugs. What it is means is that, instead of continuing to thump their cherished ‘good book’, while promoting penology-related nonsense, the self-appointed ‘guardians of morality should try educating themselves – pure and simple. Only then, they should be allowed to have a voice, when it comes to discussing matters of socio-political importance. It is only after American penology rids itself from overtones that resonate with an utterly outdated Christian worldview, that we will have a good reason to expect the improvement of the criminological situation in this country.


Feeley, M. & Simon, J. (1992). The new penology: Notes on the emerging strategy of corrections and Its implications, Criminology, 30(4), 449–474.

Tonry, M. (2004). Thinking about crime: Sense and sensibility in American penal culture. New York: Oxford University Press.

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StudyKraken. "Tonry’s Book Thinking About Crime: Sense and Sensibility in American Penal Culture." March 21, 2022.


StudyKraken. 2022. "Tonry’s Book Thinking About Crime: Sense and Sensibility in American Penal Culture." March 21, 2022.


StudyKraken. (2022) 'Tonry’s Book Thinking About Crime: Sense and Sensibility in American Penal Culture'. 21 March.

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