Justifying the mixed goals of punishment

Chase Harrison was barely a toddler when he passed away in the back seat of his father’s sedan in mid-2008. Unlike countless other unfortunate children whose lives have ended in a vehicle, it didn’t follow a collision. Rather, he died of hyperthermia – his body’s functioning slowly shut down in the oppressive summer heat as he sat forgotten outside of his father’s workplace.

The story of Chase’s death and the anguish of his father, Miles, is heart breaking to say the least. It was the subject of a Pulitzer prize winning article written by Gene Weingarten, which is as beautifully worded as it is difficult to read. I find it impossible to believe I could ever simply forget my child in such a context, as has perhaps every parent who was ever guilty of such an unimaginable act.

The article’s angle delves into the conflict created by labeling such a tragic event as worthy of a criminal sentence. He purports that in 40 per cent of cases, the event is determined to be an accident. The remainder of are charged and will frequently result in jail time. Mr. Harrison was fortunate only in having a sympathetic hearing that found him not guilty. What distinguishes these two responses to the same crime? Not much, apparently, other than the luck of the draw.

I don’t wish to summarise the rest Weingarten’s points as he makes them so well himself. Yet of particular interest to me was a single quote he included from attorney Ray Morrogh, who was responsible for prosecuting Miles Harrison.

“There is a lot to be said for reaffirming people’s obligations to protect their children. When you have children, you have responsibilities. I am very strong in the defense of children’s safety.”

This was his justification for charging and sentencing a man whose grief and sense of personal guilt is beyond measure. His claim relies on a single premise – the act of sentencing could do more to promote vigilance in parents than the story of a father whose distracted focus took his beloved toddler’s life.

We see this mentality quite often. Politicians love pushing for harsher penalties, appealing to the public’s definition of ‘justice’ which is virtually a synonym for ‘retribution’. Unfortunately, even if most people feel better with a penal system that is based on the archaic eye-for-an-eye, the justification presented is not an emotional one, but one that strives to be pragmatic.

Mr. Morrogh didn’t say Miles Harrison’s potential sentence would make people feel better. He didn’t say justice was a matter of society making you feel bad for what you’ve done, simply to address a perceived imbalance by appealing to a secular version of divine karma. He inferred that by prosecuting this man, children would be safer for it.

Unfortunately, this simply isn’t the case. Given the frequency of infants dying as they sit forgotten in a parked vehicle, the threat of jail time doesn’t seem to have had an impact, and it’s not surprising. No amount of punishment could possibly compare with the fear a parent has that they, too, could possibly be so directly responsible for their child’s agonising death. Knowing it occurs is enough for me to have nightmares. Worrying about being prosecuted doesn’t even compare.

The penal system’s castigation suffers from having three, almost distinct (and arguably often mutually exclusive) goals. One is to appeal to the public’s sense of justice being served. You do bad things, bad things will happen to you. In this case, guilt isn’t sufficient. Suffering must be dealt by the hand of those who have been wronged, if not the community.

Secondly, longer sentencing removes criminals from the community, reducing the numbers of those who might otherwise be engaging in crime.

The third goal is one of prevention – the belief that the potential length of incarceration is proportional to the amount of consideration a person gives to refraining from engaging in a criminal act. Similarly, criminals who are being punished are expected to associate their sentence with the act in some explicit demonstration of operant conditioning and avoid committing it again.

It would be logical to presume that if the premise were true, longer sentencing would be correlated with a decrease in crime. Needless to say, this is not the case at all. Harsher sentences don’t make people think harder about their behaviour. What does is the ‘swift and certain’ approach. In other words, as the expectation of being caught in a timely manner increases, crime decreases.

This suggests that people aren’t influenced by the size of punishment, but rather the probability of negative consequences occurring. For the vast number of reasons that crimes are committed, nearly all but the most reactionary come down to a judgment of probabilities; chance of loss versus chance of benefits.

Things that do make a pragmatic difference often conflict with people’s desire for suffering as compensation. Educational opportunities for those sentenced of a crime seem to reduce recidivism, for example, yet run contrary to views that punishment should serve as retribution. After all, if a law abiding citizen can’t afford an education, why should a criminal get one at their expense?

Few can claim to be immune from that innate sense for fairness to be balanced through suffering. Whether it is cultural, or buried deep in our primate genes, it’s hard to dismiss that emotional hunger for wrong-doing or unfairness to be compensated for by enforcing the punishment of the guilty party. Yet with justifications of punishment ‘serving as a warning to others’, it’s equally apparent that we typically understand emotional satisfaction should not be the primary aim of a justice system, but rather the subverting of future criminal acts is a far more worthy goal. Until we acknowledge that our desire for compensatory suffering will not necessarily achieve criminal rehabilitation or prevention, however, the gears of the judicial system will continue grind against each other without moving us anywhere.

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Published in: on August 31, 2010 at 4:37 pm  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Erm, what about the other goal of the penal system: rehabilitation? Sure you can argue that it doesn’t really work well, but the intent is there – inmates can study for degrees, learn useful trade skills, and so on with the intent of discouraging them from reoffending.

    I bring it up because I would suggest this is probably the best option from society’s point of view – I’d say it’s worth trading any amount of “justice” if you can actually reduce crime by turning criminals into productive members of society.

  2. Don’t forget – inmates make a captive audience for religions trying to recruit new members!


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