Wednesday, March 09, 2005

The Goal of Punishment

Sentencing Law And Policy Blog has an article that includes this quote from a decision in a case:

Rehabilitation is also a goal of punishment. 18 U.S.C. ยง 3553(a)(2)(D). That goal cannot be served if a defendant can look forward to nothing beyond imprisonment. Hope is the necessary condition of mankind, for we are all created in the image of God. A judge should be hesitant before sentencing so severely that he destroys all hope and takes away all possibility of useful life. Punishment should not be more severe than that necessary to satisfy the goals of punishment.


I totally disagreed with that first sentence. I posted this comment in the comments section:

I disagree that rehabilitation is the goal of punishment. The goal of punishment is to make people stop doing bad things. The majority of crimes are committed by the same minority of people, so obviously we are not rehabbing anyone. Prison should do two things: Keep bad guys safely behind bars, and serve as an unpleasant consequence to bad behavior. That way people in prison can't commit crimes and people outside of prison won't want to commit crime for fear of imprisonment.

It's prison, not bed-wetting camp! I don't care if criminals grow and mature or not. I don't see a kinder gentler approach to incarceration as an answer to recidivism. By being kinder and gentler to career criminals, we are totally missing the boat.

I don't want criminals to have hope. I want a life of crime to be a hopeless soul-crushing experience. I want every moment to be filled with fear and trepidation. These people have broken their contract with society and it should really suck for them!

But what do I know...

So that was my opinion on the matter. Maybe I'm out to lunch of this one, but I seriously don't think the goal of punishment is rehab. Punishment is meant as a deterrant! A bad thing! Something that sucks so bad, it makes you not want to go through it!

When I was a kid, if I did something wrong, my dad spanked me. Was I rehabilitated by the spanking? Did I grow and mature and see the error of my ways and thus stop doing bad things? No way, I stopped doing bad things because I didn't want to get spanked. It hurt! What does a 6 year old know of the philosophy of Right and Wrong? All I knew was this:

Lying or Swearing = Mouth Washed out with Soap
Not Obeying Parents = Spanking
Aggravated Not Obeying = Spanking With Belt

That was the Aldridge Penal Code, and it worked just fine. I knew there would be an immediate and unpleasant consequence and that spoke way more to me than discussions of integrity or honor, because I was immature.

Criminals are immature. You can't send a bank robber to his room without dessert and expect him to feel remorse. These people have decided that they will not honor society's laws and that they should victimize the weak and powerless in order to improve their own life. Why try to rehabilitate that attitude? Why not instead say, "If you choose this life, the State will make your existence a living Hell until the day you die." I'm not saying torture people or be cruel, but there's plenty of Hell that the State can mete out that is still humane.

22 Comments:

Anonymous Nick Hanson said...

You must not know too much about the guests of federal prisoners. A large majority of the people in federal prison are not "career criminals" and have not lived a "life of crime". Most are low level drug offenders. These people most likely can be rehabilitated. As you probably also know nearly all the people in our prisons are going to back on the street someday, and may even be your next door neighbor. Would you rather have them be more hardened and angered criminals who simply sat in prison day after day after day with no chance to rehabiliTate themselves? Or would you rather know that your "neighbor" went to prison, but was able to take drug rehab classes, job training classes, and college classes in order to make them a better human being and give them a better chance of making it on on the outside?

You are entitled to your opinion. Some people in prison probably shouldn't be given a lesser sentence in order to rehabilitate themselves and some probably wouldn't want to rehabilitate themselves even if offered the opportunity. But those who have not truly hurt any individuals and those who truly want to improve their standing in society and actually try to rehabilitate themselves into a better person should be offered the opportunity.

Crime is never going to go away and we will never live in a society where every individual is a saint. Some people will break the law and those that want a second chance and the ability to rehabilitate themselves while serving their sentence should be given the opportunity. The United States is supposedly renowned as the "land of second opportunity" but unfortunately many of the poor souls being warehoused in federal prisons are simply rotting, with little hope of making a better life for themselves and their families.

So, possibly take a second look at your logic and you decide for yourself if you still believe your above statement to be true..............

Ndh

12:22 PM  
Blogger Phil Aldridge said...

Nick -

Can some criminals be rehabilitated? Of course. Hell, I've known some of them. Some people get off on a wrong track and sometimes a stint in the clink is all they need to turn over a new leaf.

However, I do not believe that that scenario is the goal of punishment. Punishment is a message to two parties: the criminal and society.

To the criminal we say: "You blew it. You did something wrong. You broke the law. Now you will pay the price. Now your action will have a negative consequence."

To society we say: "Observe what this man did and what happened to him. Take care that it does not happen to you."

When we remove the sting from punishment, we remove the that which makes it undesirable to commit crime. Nobody avoids crime because they are afraid of a sensitive rehab. They either do it out of honor or fear. Most criminals have chosen to deny their honor, so we must make sure that they do not deny their fear.

Take it down to a small scale: I don't speed on my home street anymore. Is it because I see now the error of my ways? No, it's because I got a ticket and had to waste 8 hours in traffic school. What my own respect for the law could not do (35 mph is a stupid speed for a major street), my distaste for punishment does for me.

If my neighbor is the kind of guy that deserved prison, I would rather he fear it so bad that he would never do a thing that might even come close to sending him back. I'm not interested in his personal growth as a human, I'm interested in his rejection of criminality.

I want to do some research later and I will probably post a follow-up to this, but I just don't buy that most people in prison are one-time minor offenders that only need a little rehab to give back to society. I might be wrong, but I don't buy it.

12:36 PM  
Anonymous Nick Hanson said...

I must admit that I hold a biased opinion in this arena. But again I disagree with your reasoning. From reading your hobies and job interest I can see that you may also hold a biased view though, so any attempt to dissuade your reasoning may be fruitless.

I myself am a defendant in a federal case who has pled guilty and is now a felon awaiting his self-surrender to a federal prison camp. I am 23 year old former competitive bodybuilder who owned his own supplement company. One of the supplements I sold was banned by the FDA and I was charged with misbranding by continuing to distribute it without a prescription (NO it wasn't steroids). In the state I live in it's perfectly legal to sell, but in federal court it means prison. I am now a college student with a 4.0 GPA with plans of going to law school at Harvard.

Enough about me. Anyway, I cannot speak to state prisons, I assume they house many more career criminals and violent people than federal prisons do. But from my experience and research a majority of our federal prisons are filled with low level drug offenders.

As to your view on punishment and the goal of incarceration, I agree that a certain amount of the sentence should be purely punitive to dissuade individuals from committing a crime again. But you must look further into the equation to see that there are crimes in the federal system you did not even know existed, but people go to prison for them everyday.

The raw goal of criminal law is to remedy a wrong against society as a whole, a wrong for which socieity demands redress. In the instance of many of these low level drug offenders there is no real victim. One can argue that low level drug offense spawns violence in and of itself, but that can't be argued in most cases. Most of these low level offenders in federal prison simply need guidance and rehabilitation to kick their addictions. They need something to look forward to and something to look at as a goal (such as education or more job training).

In federal prisons rehabilitation has all but disapeared, I know. When I surrender for my sentence of 3-4 years I will make pennies an hour working eight hours a day. I will have no means of furthering myself. Federal inmates have little access to any college level classes and what access they do have they cannot even take a loan out to pay for. Many are considered out of state tuition because they are sent to federal prisons outside their home state. But the kicker is come consensus time they are counted as residents of that state for reapportionment purposes. But to get a cheaper education by being considered a resident is not possible. So if their families cannot pay for out of state tuition at the rapidly inflating costs of a college education then they have no hopes of bettering themselves in that regard.

I am unaware of any states that hold rehabilitation as the number one goal of incarceration. What I am arguing is that more states and especially the federal government need to take more steps to make rehabilitation available to those who need it. But unfortunately many citizens have the same thoughts towards that as yourself, and no money goes to rehabilitate people who are in prisons.........

ndh

4:50 PM  
Anonymous Nick said...

I also want to comment on your note here:

"If my neighbor is the kind of guy that deserved prison, I would rather he fear it so bad that he would never do a thing that might even come close to sending him back. I'm not interested in his personal growth as a human, I'm interested in his rejection of criminality."

What you need to really research is the recedivism rate, especially in federal prison. Since aboliting parole (and therefore rehabilitation) the federal system has an extremely high recedivism rate. I don't have any date immediately in front of me, but I believe over 50% of those who leave federal prison find themselves back in a prison within a year. By eliminating rehabilitation as a goal of incarceration these people have nothing to dedicate themselves to while in prison and, bluntly, have nothing to look forward to on the outside. People who go to prison should have a chance to come back a better person if are a first time nonviolent felon. All they come back with is a big "F" on their forehead when it comes time to finding a job or meaningful income. So what do they do? They go back to a life of crime to put food on their tables.........

I'm sure you have seen data to this effect. Our imprisonment rates have troubled since the early eighties. And since abolishing parole things have only gotten worse as people serve 85% of their sentencings and come out with nothing to look forward to any no more experience that will better themselves in the real world than when they left it. Honestly I believe that using pure punishment as the goal of incarceration has failed. Jail doesn't scare most individuals anymore. Some people only goal is putting food in thier mouth of finding a way to put shelter over their head. For those that truly wish to change themselves they should be offered the chance to rehabilitate themselves while incarcerated...............but those days are gone

5:12 PM  
Blogger Phil Aldridge said...

Well, not being intimate with the details of your case, I will say that I would tend to be sympathetic to one such as yourself who gets caught up in a bizarre legal situation. You sound like an articulate, productive guy whose life just got dumped upside down.

Having said that, you are, I believe, a minority case. And while it seems unfair, I don't think that policy should defer to the minority in this instance. Surely some people need only some guidance or a little education or what have you to rejoin society as productive members. However, I don't believe the majority of the prison population is in that group.

So, I tend to believe that as it relates to prison philosophy, we have to govern with the majority in mind. I guess you could say I believe in trickle-down justice: Your average criminal victimizes many many people. So, if the prison system focuses on rehabbing the "stray sheep" and goes soft on the "wolves", sure life is good for the sheep, but the wolves are being bred towards fearlessness. The positive impact from the sheep is small and the negative impact from the wolves is large.

Turning it around by focusing on breaking the wolves down and you end up stopping a source of great victimization. This comes at the expense of lessening the positive impact of the sheep, but it's the wolves that victimize in large volumes, so curtailing their reign of terror has a much greater impact.

I hate to reduce you personally to a numbers game, believe me. I hate to dehumanize you into a percentage and then use a calculator to dictate how good or bad your life will be. But, I just believe in a pragmatic approach here. It will hurt a few now to protect many later.

You're right that my bias is showing. I am biased towards a less sensitive, less subjective approach. I am biased in favor of law and order as opposed to hope and redemption. It's a valid argument to have.

So, I suppose we will have to agree to disagree, and you can take comfort in the fact that I'm not in charge of anything, so I can't directly impact you in any meaningful way. You're safe from my viewpoint for the time being. ;)

5:13 PM  
Blogger Robbie said...

I used part of your post on the Goal of Punishment to rebuke a commentor on my site who thinks that prisons are simply 'correctional' facilities.

She's a pen pal of a man who was sentenced to die in Texas for shooting his 75 year old neighbor in the head from point-blank range to steal his car.

The man, Robert Acuna, was only 17 when he commited his crime. SCOTUS recently said we can't carry out the execution he deserves.

The woman commentor on my site is one of his pen pals.

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