Grief, Accountability, and Youth Incarceration

When and Where

Tuesday, March 05, 2024 3:00 pm to 4:30 pm
Debates Room
Hart House
7 Hart House Circle


Laurence Ralph


Join us for "Grief, Accountability, and Youth Incarceration" with Professor Laurence Ralph, Professor of Anthropology at Princeton University. This Public Talk is part of a 2023-2024 Andrew Mellon Sawyer Seminar titled “Evasion: Thinking the Underside of Surveillance.” 

About the talk:

This talk examines the ramifications of juvenile incarceration. Since the 2010s, brain development studies have greatly influenced US Supreme Court proceedings concerning juvenile crime. These studies suggest that the prefrontal cortex—which is responsible for impulse control, planning, and risk avoidance—is still developing until the age of twenty-five. Defense attorneys and public defenders increasingly use brain science to support the position that adolescents’ incompletely developed brains render them not fully blameworthy and makes it inappropriate to sentence them as adults. And yet, US prosecutors have wide discretion to work around the US Supreme Court’s ruling on the status of juveniles. Moreover, even if prosecutors base their sentences on the Court’s findings, the governor of their state can replace them. One consequence of prosecutorial discretion, in other words, is that the law is unevenly applied, making it difficult for a victim’s family to heal from homicide. Drawing from the literature in child psychology as well as the sociology and anthropology of urban violence, I argue that, as a society, our idea of accountability is incomplete. As I would come to learn when a teenage family member of mine was murdered, even within the progressive embrace of cities like San Francisco, a stark contrast between the rhetoric of a fair trial and the stark reality of juvenile justice persists. Rather than seeking to provide solutions for the problem of juvenile crime, this talk lays bare the tensions and societal contradictions this phenomenon creates. 

About Professor Ralph:

Laurence Ralph is a professor, writer and filmmaker. His work explores how police abuse, mass incarceration, and the drug trade make injury and premature death seem natural for people of color. His first book, Renegade Dreams (University of Chicago Press, 2014), received the C. Wright Mills Award and the J.I. Staley Prize. His second book, The Torture Letters (University of Chicago Press, 2020), explores a decades-long scandal in which hundreds of Black men were tortured in police custody. The Torture Letters is also the name of his award-winning, animated short film, which is featured in The New York Times Op-Doc series. Laurence’s work has been featured in The Paris Review, The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, The Nation, The Chicago Review of Books, Boston Review and Literary Hub, to name a few. His lates book SITO: An American teenager and the City that Failed Him was released February 20 by Grand Central Publishing.

Laurence has held tenured appointments in the African & African American studies and anthropology departments at Harvard. He is currently a professor of anthropology at Princeton University. Ralph has been awarded many fellowships for his work, some of which include the Guggenheim  and Carnegie Fellowships, as well as grants from the National Science Foundation, the Wenner Gren Foundation, and the National Research Council of the National Academies. He is a member of the Institute for Advanced Study, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, a fellow of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and an elected member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

Contact Information: Katharine Bell,

Contact Information

Centre for Diaspora & Transnational Studies


Centre for Diaspora & Transnational Studies


7 Hart House Circle