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“…punishment is always a cost and not a benefit…”

The title of this post is a quote from Mark Kleiman writing over at the Volokh Conspiracy.  Kleiman’s the author of a new book on crime control called When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment.  I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the crime situation in this country, and the above quote crystallized for me one piece of the puzzle.  I think that a lot of ills in our society come from the unspoken axiom, held by many police, prosecutors, jurists, and private citizens, that punishing criminals is, in some fashion, a good.1

Quite the contrary, the punishment of criminals is, at best, a cost and at worst a necessary evil.  As such, punishing people for offenses should be restricted to instances where such punishment is a net gain for society.  (As a libertarian, I think that punishment should further be restricted to instances in which the offense has an articulable victim and be of a magnitude only severe enough to recoup the damages done to said victim and/or to minimize the chances that the person will re-offend.)

Is this a novel idea?  No, definitely not.  I just wanted to highlight the nice formulation of the idea: “Punishment is always a cost, not a benefit.”  Amen.  Kleiman goes on to say that our current crime and incarceration rates are a disgrace, a sentiment that I whole-heartedly agree with.  The Volokh post linked above is the first in a series, and I, for one, am eager to see what else he says on the matter.

1(The Randians in the audience will be nodding along and saying that it’s a “good” for those in power since it aids in population control. To that I say, well, you may not be wrong, but I’ll need some more evidence before I admit that you’re right.)

Posted in Politics.


2 Responses

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  1. Citizen Jane says

    The entire notion of punishment is antiquated and contrary to all common sense and current knowledge about human behavior.

    At best, punishment creates an ongoing power-struggle–a win-lose relationship in which no one really ever wins. I sometimes wish I could explain that to parents I see in grocery stores, swatting their kids or jerking them around by the arms. I feel like saying, “When she’s 16, don’t be surprised if she makes your life miserable.”

    At worst, punishment is a sure way to make dangerous and unstable people more dangerous and unstable–often with hideous results.

    In the public arena, focus should be on solving social problems, not punishing evil doers. If someone is dangerous to self or society, that person needs to be contained and controlled. But there’s no reason not to be humane and compassionate about it. First, that would eliminate the ridiculous notion that we should release evil doers after so many years, regardless of whether or not they pose a threat. It would mean we’d stop taking misguided young people and making monsters out of them in prisons.

    Furthermore, recent surveys of “innocence projects” conducted by some law school and journalism schools indicate that as many as 40% of people condemned to death in the United States are innocent–and DNA evidence has freed many of them after years of incarceration.

    It’s unconscionable to punish people, even for heinous crimes, just as it’s also unconscionable to turn them loose again in society. The focus should be on rational problem solving, not the primitive, emotional desire for revenge.

  2. The Tarquin says

    I’m not convinced that “punishment” need always connote the irrational, vengeful idea you portray. I’m a big believer in preventative justice, and so I agree with your larger point that the Justice system needs to be concerning itself with preventing further offenses rather than punishing for the sake of punishing.

    Still, even if it’s not done out of malice, putting someone in prison for an offense is still punishment.

    (I also strongly disagree with you when you seem to want to say that unlimited incarceration for any offense would be permissible if the state believed that the person might reoffend. Aside from the fact that I flat don’t trust the state with power like that, I think it will in almost all cases be a clear violation of the 8th amendment.)

    Still, I agree with you for the most part. Revenge should never be the point of a state justice system. The protection of citizens and, thus, the prevention of further offenses should be the point.