Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys

Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys

Author: Victor Rios
New York: New York University Press, 2011. 218p.
Reviewer: Madeleine Novich | May 2012

Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys, a book by University of California, Santa Barbara professor Victor Rios, is set in the backdrop of Oakland, California. Rios studies the lives of boys growing up in a complicated environment where punishment permeates throughout many facets of their daily activities. Rios’s book examines the punitive social control in Oakland and his study focuses on young Black and Latino males who have a history of criminalization and interactions with various forms of social control. Rios introduces the readers to his conceptual framework, youth control complex, and demonstrates how various factors such as family, education, and law enforcement interact to create a structured punitive environment that systematically criminalizes Black and Latino youth. He then explores how the punitive forces negatively impact the youths and concludes with policy implications and suggestions for social improvement.

Rios’s book is an important contribution to the criminological field for several reasons. The dominant message in his book, that our society continues to criminalize or ‘hyper-criminalize’ Black and Latino boys and gangs, is a critical message to impart. As Rios demonstrates, society plays an important role and has some responsibility in shaping the lives of these boys. This is especially true in terms of how ubiquitous mass incarceration negatively affects youths in lower socioeconomic and violent neighborhoods. As these boys grow up with their lives entwined with the punishment system, they respond by resisting.  This, consequently, can contribute to a self-defeating cycle that adversely impacts their future trajectories and worldviews.

Most strikingly, as Rios explores the impact of society, he humanizes the youths in a way rarely found in other studies. As a reader, we begin to understand, empathize, and connect with the boys he interviews. Rios’s ability to capture this rare insight is likely a result of his own background. As a former gang member, he has the ability to relate on a level that most researchers simply cannot. Rios did an excellent job capturing the uniquely human elements of his study by incorporating engaging dialogue and objective interpretations of their commentary.

Rios skillfully integrates ethnographic and criminological findings to support his work and introduces important policy implications as to how to improve the youths’ lives. His unique perspective and findings further support the opinion that ‘business-as-usual’ social control methods are not only ineffective but also damaging. Instead, Rios suggests that these youths require positive reinforcement through rehabilitative and reintegrative strategies. By offering targeted policy implications, Rios describes how society can improve and as a result better the boys’ chances of success. This drives home the point that the youths and society exist together in a dynamic and organic relationship where each side is impacted by the actions of the other. Ultimately, Rios’s book is a valuable contribution to the field because it is an interdisciplinary work that addresses fundamental and ongoing concepts of juvenile delinquency and gang participation.

Madeleine Novich is a Ph.D. student at Rutgers School of Criminal Justice

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