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The Promises and Perils of Categorical Exemptions for Extreme Punishment Policy

Natalie Pifer, doctoral candidate at UC Irvine

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Feb 09, 2017
from 12:00 PM to 01:00 PM


1130 K Street, Room LL3

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Categorical exemptions first emerged as a U.S. Supreme Court mechanism to carve out vulnerable classes of offenders whose execution no longer comported with the Eighth Amendment’s ‘evolved standards of decency’. Today, their logic of reforming by restricting has proliferated beyond the Court’s death penalty docket to reform extreme punishments like life without parole sentences and extreme conditions of confinement. Yet, these exemptions are often predicated on ill-defined categories like “the disabled,” “the mentally ill,” or “juveniles” that render them vulnerable to imperfect implementation by criminal justice practitioners. I use three case studies that invoke the logic of categorical exemptions to negotiate contemporary criminal justice controversies—the use of isolation in California’s prisons and in New York City’s Rikers Island Jail and prison overcrowding in California—to consider their meaning for the penal field, emphasizing their potential to re-entrench rather than reform extreme punishments.

Natalie Pifer is a doctoral candidate in Criminology, Law and Society at UC Irvine. She received her M.A. in Social Ecology from UC Irvine, J.D. from Loyola Law School, and B.A. from New York University. Natalie’s work, which appears in both peer-reviewed journals and law reviews, focuses on understanding how legal categories drive—or frustrate—changes in criminal justice policy issues such as prison overcrowding, policing and incarcerating the mentally ill, and reforming penal practices such as the death penalty, life without parole, and solitary confinement. Her research has been supported by the Haynes Foundation, the UC Irvine Graduate Division Dean, and the Peterson/Microsemi Fellowship.


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