Heather Schoenfeld

Assistant Professor of Legal Studies and Education and Social Policy | IPR Fellow


Heather Schoenfeld is a sociologist of law who is interested in historical and contemporary systems of criminal punishment in the United States. Her research explores the rise of U.S. mass incarceration, focusing on states' criminal justice policies and practices. She is the co-author of the first historical comparative analysis of punishment and politics across eight American states between 1960 and 2001. The article, “The Transformation of America's Penal Order: A Historicized Political Sociology of Punishment" (with Michael Campbell), received the Distinguished Article Award from the American Sociological Association Sociology of Law Section and an honorable mention for the 2014 Law and Society Association Article Award.

Schoenfeld’s research has also appeared in the Law & Society Review, Punishment & Society, and the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences. She currently serves on the editorial board of Criminology & Public Policy. Before joining Northwestern's faculty in 2013, Schoenfeld was an assistant professor of sociology at The Ohio State University. 

Current Projects 

The Development of Mass Incarceration in the United States. Schoenfeld’s forthcoming book, "Building the Prison State: Race and the Politics of Mass Incarceration" (University of Chicago Press, Feb. 2018) is about crime-control politics and the growth of imprisonment in Florida between 1950 and 2015. Using historical records and interviews, the book focuses on the actions of politicians, criminal justice professionals, prisoner-rights lawyers, law enforcement, media, and the courts. In the book, Schoenfeld argues that the United States’ history of racial subordination, partisan politics, and crime control's federal structure led policymakers to invest in the capacity to police, prosecute, and imprison. As the state’s capacity to punish grew, it created new interest groups and incentives for politicians to continually expand punitive crime control measures—despite significant reductions in crime, high fiscal costs, and grave collateral consequences. 

State Decarceration Reform in the 21st Century. In collaboration with Michael Campbell of the University of Missouri, St. Louis, Schoenfeld is examining states’ efforts to reduce the human and fiscal costs of imprisonment. In recent years, the Great Recession, the reduced salience of domestic crime, and the rise of new conservative coalitions have challenged tough-on-crime policies. Why have these challenges led to significant reforms in some states, but not others? By revealing the strategies, resources, and processes that brought about successful reform, Schoenfeld and Campbell aim to help lawmakers, interest groups, and reform advocates create the conditions necessary to substantially reduce incarceration.

Selected Publications

Schoenfeld, H. 2016. How do you get ideologues to change their minds? Washington Monthly, Sept/Oct. Book review of Prison Break: How Conservatives Turned Against Mass Incarceration by D. Dagan and S. Teles (Oxford University Press).

Schoenfeld, H. 2016. A research agenda on reform: Penal policy and politics across the states. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences 664: 155–75.

Schoenfeld, H. 2014. The delayed emergence of penal modernism in FloridaPunishment & Society 16(3): 25884.

Campbell, M., and H. Schoenfeld. 2013. The transformation of America's penal order: A historicized political sociology of punishmentAmerican Journal of Sociology 118(5): 1375423.

Schoenfeld, H. 2010. Mass incarceration and the paradox of prison conditions litigationLaw & Society Review 44(3/4): 73168.

Schoenfeld, H. 2005. Violated trust: Conceptualizing prosecutorial misconduct. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 21(3): 25071.