My scholarship focuses on what broadly can be called the politics of punishment. What that means is that I spend most of my time thinking and writing about the relationship between more airy concepts like ‘democracy’ and the more worldly functioning of institutions like prisons and the criminal courts. My work underscores the need to not only rigorously assess the empirical record, but to expose the pressing normative questions that are often buried in that record. Consider two such questions from recently published articles:

* Given what we know about public attitudes toward punishment, should penal law be insulated from public influence?

And,

* What role should the scientific study of adolescent behavior play in juvenile court proceedings?

While the particular topics I write on vary, most of my work builds on a common theme. When we hear accounts of mistreatment in mental health facilities, overcrowding and violence in prisons, and the abuse of children under state supervision we’re rightly horrified. However, something is missed when these problems are described as a simple deficit of conditions, of training, of treatment, or of moral reasoning. There often is something else at work — a democratic deficit that remains largely unexamined in both popular and academic discourse. An intuition motivating my larger research agenda is that the general political vulnerability of those in custody, in part, invites their exploitation.

This theme in my research places my scholarly work squarely at the intersection of law & society and democratic theory. My book is forthcoming with the University of California Press and my wider research efforts have generated a number of journal articles.

Book

Democracy in Captivity. Berkeley: University of California Press. Forthcoming in fall 2023

Past and present efforts to reform prisons and mental hospitals are haunted by a desire to democratize custody. Embedded in this desire, Democracy in Captivity shows, is a persistent anxiety about who ought to govern ward life. Stuck in the middle of the social engineering efforts of both custodians and would-be democratic reformers are prisoners and patients themselves. Wards struggle for representation and, invariably, provoke backlash — not only in the blunt forms of restraint chairs, riot gear, and a surgeon’s scalpel, but also more covert sorts of maneuvering under the cover of ‘democratic’ management. I explain how these more subtle moves facilitate exploitation, entrench disenfranchisement, and naturalize authoritarian rule. In doing so, I use custody as a lens to examine wider pathologies that have captured the politics of punishment today.

Book conference held at the University of Virginia on May 3, 2019. [Program here.]

Published Articles (Refereed)

  • Berk, Christopher D. 2020. “Must penal law be insulated from public influence?” Law and Philosophy, forthcoming. [Online first available here.]
  • Berk, Christopher D. 2019. “Reply to Elizabeth Scott, Laurence Steinberg, David Tanenhaus, and James Backstrom.” Law & Social Inquiry 44, no. 3: 787-790. [Available here.]
  • Berk, Christopher D. 2019. “Childhood, development, and the troubled foundations of Miller v. Alabama.” Law & Social Inquiry 44, no. 3: 752-770. [Available here.]
    • Symposium at LSI devoted to this article is available here.
  • Berk, Christopher D. 2018. “On Prison Democracy: The Politics of Participation in a Maximum Security Prison.” Critical Inquiry 44, no. 2: 275-302. [Print available here.]

Published Articles (Invited)

  • Berk, Christopher D. 2010. “Investment Talk: Comments on the Use of the Language of Investment in Prison Reform Advocacy.” Carceral Notebooks 6: 115-129. [Print available here.]

Works in Progress

  • “The Submerged Prison State.” Working paper.
  • “Governing Children: Resistance in a Boarding School for At-Risk Youth.” Working paper.