Center for Global Humanities Lecture/Seminar Series

From Bernie Madoff to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev: The "worst of the worst" and U.S. criminal justice policy

Colleen Eren
Free and open to the public

In 2009, amid the financial crisis which led to the longest recession since the Great Depression, Bernie Madoff was sentenced to the statutory maximum of 150 years for his masterminding the largest Ponzi scheme in history. His crime shuttered philanthropies, resulting in 17 billion in losses. This lecture discusses the ways in which the Madoff case became a way in which the public could discuss—and punish—not only the crime of Madoff's individual Ponzi, but the unethical and criminal behavior which led to the financial crisis. It raises the perils of using a single case to remedy more systemic problems, including those found in U.S. capitalism. The lecture will furthermore discuss how using 'worst of the worst' examples—whether it is a financial crime such as Madoff's or violent crime such as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's—in order to set criminal justice policy ultimately prevents large-scale change to the vast social problem of over-incarceration.


Colleen Eren is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice at William Paterson University and Director of their Criminology and Criminal Justice program. Her first book, Bernie Madoff and the Crisis was published by Stanford University Press, and she is currently in contract for a second book, Reform-Nation: The Movement to End Over-Incarceration with Stanford. She is also the co-author of the text The Impact of Supreme Court decisions on U.S. Institutions: A Sociology of Law Primer (Routledge). In addition to her academic work, Eren has a background in community organizing around criminal justice issues: for six years she was Director of Organizing at New Yorkers for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, which led a successful statewide campaign to keep capital punishment out of New York, and was a steering committee member of Amnesty’s Program to Abolish the Death Penalty. She is currently on the board for New Hour for Women and Children, a nonprofit which helps justice-impacted women returning home from prison and jail.


United States

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