Crime and Human Rights (19): Why Do We Impose Criminal Punishment?

It seems so obvious that we must punish criminals that we hardly think about the reasons why. And then when we do think about some of the possible reasons, we find that they are of dubious quality, and we start to wonder whether criminal punishment can be justified at all.

1. Retribution

The first reason that springs to mind is retribution: we impose punishment – i.e. pain, suffering or unpleasant consequences – because that is what criminals deserve. Punishment is a deserved and proportionate “repayment” for the crime that has been done. And indeed, the fact that wrongdoers deserve some form of proportionate punishment or unpleasantness seems to be a deep-seated intuition. But if we want to use this notion of retribution as a justification of criminal punishment, we need to define what exactly it is that a particular criminal deserves. Because if it turns out that we can’t decide, in a non-arbitrary way, what it is that a criminal deserves, then it’s useless to place desert and proportional repayment at the heart of the justification of criminal punishment.

And we can’t decide. We can’t determine which punishment fits which crime. Retribution naturally tends towards lex talionis (an eye for an eye). For two reasons: first because that is the easy answer to the question of deserved punishment, and second because of the origins of the word “retribution” (retribuere in Latin means to restore, to give back). However, the brutality of lex talionis is no longer acceptable these days, which is why retribution theorists have tried to find another, less brutal way of determining the deserved punishment. Proportionality is then considered to be a just retributive principle: the punishment must not be equal to the crime, but the gravity of the punishment must be proportional to the severity of the crime; more serious crimes should entail more severe punishments.

Proportionality, like the element of desert in the basic structure of retribution, is hard to argue with, but it’s also useless. It can justify any type of punishment because it doesn’t provide a non-arbitrary starting point or end point of severity. Hence, it fails to answer the basic question raised by retribution: which punishment fits which crime? If this question can’t be answered, then retribution can’t be a justification of criminal punishment.

True, retribution can still be used negatively: some punishments clearly don’t fit the crime, and are not deserved. A $10 dollar fine for a murder, or execution for shoplifting are examples. But a theory of punishment that can only say which punishment are not justifiable is clearly not a complete justification of criminal punishment. After all, such a theory doesn’t exclude the possibility that all punishments are not justifiable.

2. Deterrence

With retribution out of the way, we can now consider an alternative justification of criminal punishment. We may decide to punish criminals because in doing so we instill fear in other – potential – criminals and therefore deter future crime. Punishment is then a means to protect society against crime. It’s a stop sign. And, like retribution, this seems to be, at first sight at least, a convincing justification. Like it is intuitively correct that a criminal deserves some kind of punishment, it is also intuitively convincing that people, when faced with the risk of punishment, will have a strong incentive to abstain from crime.

However, we again see that the initial appeal of this justification doesn’t survive closer scrutiny. First, there’s a lack of conclusive empirical evidence for the existence of a deterrent effect. Even the strongest possible punishment – death – doesn’t seem to deter. Part of the reason for this is the fact that crime often isn’t a rational calculation of risks, costs and benefits. And when it is, low conviction rates may have more weight in the criminals’ calculations than the severity or unpleasantness of unlikely punishments.

Another reason why deterrence cannot justify criminal punishment is its inherent immorality: to deter is to use people as means to reduce crime, and that kind of instrumentalization is morally unacceptable.

3. Incapacitation

If we can’t deter, maybe we can incapacitate, and justify criminal punishment on that basis. Incapacitating a criminal allows us to protect society without instrumentalizing the criminal (we don’t use the criminal and his punishment as a fear-instilling mechanism; we simply keep the criminal away from his or her future victims).

Again, being able to stop criminals from reoffending is intuitively appealing, but it isn’t enough to justify a system of criminal punishment. If we should decide that incapacitation justifies criminal punishment, we’re still left with the task of deciding the type of criminal punishment it actually justifies. Which actions are necessary and just forms of incapacitation? Like retribution or proportionality, incapacitation leaves open a very wide array of possible punishments: cutting off the hands of thieves, house arrest, ostracism, banishment, imprisonment, chemical castration, etc. A theory that can’t help us to choose among those options can’t possibly be a complete justification of criminal punishment. Ideally, we don’t want a justification of punishment that allows all or most types of punishment. And again, the fact that some forms of incapacitation are clearly not acceptable isn’t ground enough for a justification based on incapacitation, like the fact that some punishments are clearly not deserved isn’t ground enough for a justification based on retribution.

4. Symbolic confirmation of social rules

Perhaps a more promising justification of criminal punishment is based on the social role of punishment. When we punish criminals for their crimes, we may not intend to give them what they deserve, incapacitate them or deter others; we may instead engage in a bit of theater. Which, by the way, is also one of the reasons for having public trials. The public condemnation of wrong actions is a symbolic confirmation of social rules, and this confirmation has an educational function. It teaches people the values and norms of society, in the hope that they internalize these values and norms through repeated public and symbolic confirmation. Furthermore, the punishment of crimes affirms not just certain values and norms (e.g. don’t steal or murder) but the necessity of peaceful social cooperation and therefore the necessity of society itself.

Like desert, protection, deterrence and incapacitation, these are all fine objectives. However, a justification of criminal punishment based on its symbolic role faces the criticism of instrumentalization, as in the case of deterrence. Especially when the stated objectives – affirmation of norms and society – can be reached through other means.

5. Signaling

And the same is true for the justification of punishment based on the need for signaling. Society, and especially the representatives of society, need to show that they care about victims of crime. However, they don’t have to do so at the expense of criminals. Still less acceptable is the use of punishment as a signal of authority. Punishment can’t be justified when it is merely a manifestation of power by those in charge.

6. Healing and pacification

Punishment can be justified as therapy for the victims of crime, their relatives and friends, and even society as a whole. It’s a fact that punishment gives some satisfaction to victims, and responds to their sense of justice. It can also channel anger and revenge away from the more disturbing forms of those emotions, thereby preventing street justice and vigilantism. However, there’s a disturbing circularity to this justification: because people expect punishment, we should administer it, but because we administer it people continue to expect it. Also, when trying to channel emotions such as anger and revenge into socially acceptable forms we unconsciously promote them, whereas maybe we should try to limit those emotions as much as we can.

7. Rehabilitation

The rehabilitation of the criminal in the sense of his or her moral regeneration is no longer a fashionable justification of punishment. For several reasons: it’s expensive, and it upsets our sense of equal justice (successful rehabilitation can imply a radically shorter sentence). Also, some psychiatric excesses have been successfully ridiculed in movies such as A Clockwork Orange and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

In any case, the point is moot whether or not rehabilitation can be a successful justification of criminal punishment, since society has practically given up on it.

Conclusion

It’s extremely difficult to find an acceptable justification of criminal punishment. Hence, I strongly suspect that this is one of those social practices that seems perfectly normal and acceptable to contemporaries but also one for which we will be universally condemned by future generations.

Unsurprisingly, given the lack of solid justifications, people start to look for other reasons explaining the persistence of the practice. There’s talk of the new Jim Crow and criminal punishment being used to maintain oppressive social structures. Maybe it’s time to reread Foucault.

Still, it’s uncontested that society can’t function and people can’t thrive without respect for certain norms, especially the norms included in human rights. Those norms are regularly violated, and a society has the right and the duty to enforce compliance. A rejection of this right and duty means tolerating victimization and rights violations. But if punishment isn’t the right way to enforce compliance, which is? We can’t just accept punishment and to hell with justifications, because punishments do impose costs, both on the criminals being punished and on society as a whole. Imposing costs without justifications isn’t the right thing to do. Also, an unjustified system of punishment will lack legitimacy and will therefore be ineffective, something which will further undermine its legitimacy.

Hence, we’re left with the following choice: look harder for a justification, or find an alternative, non-punitive system of norm enforcement (maybe a system that is able to prevent violations of norms). Only half-jokingly: why not give law-abiding citizens prize money?

More here.

Capital Punishment (44): The Retribution Argument Against Capital Punishment

Retribution is the last refuge of those seeking to justify capital punishment, given the failure of other arguments (deterrence, incapacitation etc.). Retribution is a punishment that fits the crime: the severity of the punishment should be proportionate to the severity of the crime. Intuitively, therefore, retribution should justify capital punishment for murder. Only death is a punishment that is as severe as murder. The Latin origin of the word “retribution” indicates that something should be given back or returned: someone “gives” death and hence death should be returned.

However, in theory, retribution does not necessarily mean that the punishment has to be strictly equivalent to the harm caused by the crime: some claim that retribution simply means that we must punish severe crimes more harshly than less severe crimes. Yet we see in practice that capital punishment as punishment for murder is defended on retributivist grounds.

Retributivists, ancient and modern, have always been lured by one or another form of lex talionis. (source)

There’s often an element of desert introduced in retributivist arguments. A murderer should be put to death because this punishment fits the crime, and because this punishment fits the crime, the murderer deserves to die.

So, given this “natural” tendency of retributivists to favor capital punishment for murder, how can it be possible to construct an argument based on retribution against capital punishment, as the title of this post suggest? Thom Brooks has made a highly interesting attempt here. It’s based on a decision by Judge Jed Rakoff ( in US v Quinones):

What DNA testing has proved, beyond cavil, is the remarkable degree of fallibility in the basic fact-finding processes on which we rely in criminal cases. In each of the 12 cases of DNA-exoneration of death row inmates referenced in Quinones, the defendant had been guilty by a unanimous jury that concluded there was proof of his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt; and in each of the 12 cases the conviction had been affirmed on appeal, and collateral challenges rejected, by numerous courts that had carefully scrutinized the evidence and manner of conviction. Yet, for all this alleged “due process”, the result in each and every one of these cases, was the conviction of an innocent person who, because of the death penalty, would shortly have been executed (-some came within days of being so-) were it not for the fortuitous development of a new scientific technique that happened to be applicable to their particular cases. (source)

This should even convince retributivists that capital punishment has to be rejected. Even if you adopt the moral rule that murderers deserve to die you, shouldn’t apply the death penalty in practice because you can’t be certain that a particular defendant is really guilty of the crime and hence deserves to die. And there’s no point arguing that the systematic use of DNA testing gives you this certainty: first, it’s not always possible to use DNA tests, because the crime has to be of such a type that DNA traces are potentially available, and even if they are potentially available they may not be actually available; and second, we don’t know if DNA testing is accurate enough and won’t be discredited in the future.

You could also argue that the same lack of certainty is the case for all types of crime, and that rejecting capital punishment because of a lack of certainty implies rejecting criminal punishment tout court. Not quite: all other types of punishment allow for the possibility to correct mistakes resulting from uncertainty. Capital punishment rules this out.

And there’s another kind of uncertainty that militates against capital punishment and that should convince retributivists to reject it. The desert of a criminal is usually based on more than mere physical evidence of his actions. Intent also plays a part. Take the case of someone who caused the death of someone else by his actions – and let’s assume that we are certain about this, e.g. we have DNA evidence and we know that no future scientific developments will cast doubt on this evidence – but did not intend to kill. Many would argue that he doesn’t deserve to die. However, intent is impossible to prove because it requires reading someone’s mind, and hence we can never be certain that someone intended to kill. A desert based argument for capital punishment is void if desert includes intent.

Crime and Human Rights (11): The Preconditions for Criminal Punishment

I know that the worst thing about crime is what happens to the victims of crimes, not what happens to convicted criminals. Still, I want to focus on the latter for a moment. Criminal punishment is almost always a limitation of the criminal’s human rights, so it is a legitimate area of concern, although perhaps not the most important one. Whether we put criminals in prison, kill them, flog them, cut off their hands or put their names and addresses on the internet, we limit some or even many of their human rights.

So, if we want to maintain a system of criminal punishment, and if we agree that people don’t lose their human rights simply because they commit a crime, then we have to formulate a justification of the limits we impose on the rights of criminals. When are such limits justified, and when are they arbitrary, excessive or dictatorial? I believe criminal punishment is morally justified if, and only if, at least the following 8 conditions are met simultaneously:

1. Criminal punishment is necessary for the protection of the rights of others

A particular punishment, involving very specific limitations of the rights of the convicted criminal, has to be necessary for the protection of the rights of others. No other goal can be served by criminal punishment, and no other means or punishments, less harmful to the rights of the criminal have the same effect on the rights of others.

Criminal punishment not intended to protect the rights of others is therefore unacceptable, as is criminal punishment which imposes harm on the criminal that goes beyond what is necessary for the protection of the rights of others. For example, putting someone in prison because she has a certain opinion, is unacceptable because this punishment doesn’t protect the rights of others. And putting someone in prison because she steals a newspaper is also unacceptable because this punishment goes beyond what is necessary to protect the property rights of others. Rights protection in this case can be achieved by other means which are less harmful to the rights of the criminal (a fine for instance).

So both the type of punishment and its severity have to be taken into account when judging whether the punishment is morally justified. Simple retribution, proportionality or lex talionis can, in some cases, satisfy this first condition of morally justified punishment, but only by accident. In many cases, you will not deliver a morally justified punishment when you think only in terms of retribution, proportionality or lex talionis because you won’t automatically consider the effect of the punishment on the rights of others.

For example, take the case of a jealous artist vandalizing the work of a rival. Lex talionis would recommend that the vandals art be also vandalized. However, this punishment may be proportional and adequate retribution, and the vandal will undoubtedly suffer from it like he made his rival suffer, but no one’s rights are protected in this way. On the contrary, if the vandal is a good artist the punishment may even violate the rights of large numbers of people.

A punishment should be designed in such a way that it protects the rights of the victims and possible victims of the criminal who is about to be punished. This is the case when incarceration of a sexual maniac will protect the rights of his victim (although not retroactively) and of possible future victims, and such a punishment does seem to be what is required while avoiding the imposition of excessive harm on the maniac. In other words, there isn’t a more lenient sentence available which would offer the same protections to the rights of others while imposing less restrictions on the rights of the maniac. And neither is the punishment too severe for the purpose it serves, namely the protection of the rights of others.

But these “others” are not only the victims or possible victims of the criminal. Punishment is also signaling: by showing possible maniacs what happens to actual maniacs, we want to deter crime. Deterrence, like punishment, also protects the rights of others, “others” meaning here not the victims or possible victims of an actual criminal but the possible victims of a possible criminal. There is room for deterrence, but only when the deterrent effect is real, in other words when it really helps to protect the rights of others. We should be careful with deterrence, because deterrence means the instrumentalization of human beings. When there is doubt about a deterrence effect, and when at the same time the proposed punishment is very harsh, we should avoid designing the punishment with deterrence in mind. For example, if a very high fine for shoplifting has been shown empirically to deter a high percentage of possible shoplifters, then it would be morally justified to impose such a high fine on a specific shoplifter, even if a much lower fine would suffice to protect the rights of the actual and possible victims of this specific shoplifter. So this is an exception to the rule stated a moment ago.

On the other hand, if it can be shown empirically that the deterrent effect of capital punishment is doubtful, then we should not impose that punishment on a specific criminal, except when it is necessary to protect the rights of the actual and possible victims of that specific criminal. But when is this necessary? Often if not always we can find a more lenient sentence which will offer the same protections to the rights of actual and possible victims of an actual criminal, while imposing less restrictions on the rights of the criminal (e.g. life without parole).

2. The criminal acted with free will

We should assume that people generally have free will. There doesn’t seem to be room for moral responsibility or criminal culpability without this assumption. There can’t be criminals in a world in which everything is governed by “blind” cause and effect. People have free will when they have the capacity to choose a course of action from among a set of alternatives. If a criminal’s will and choice of action are not decided by himself, we can hardly say that he’s responsible for his actions. Only if he could have acted differently can he be held responsible for his actual actions. Imagine a brainwashed spy being sent abroad by his totalitarian government in order to kill political opponents. This person couldn’t have acted differently and didn’t have the capacity to choose from among different courses of action. Hence he can’t be held responsible for his actions.

We should start from the general assumption that people normally act on the basis of free will, but if we find that this assumption doesn’t hold in a particular case, then either criminal punishment is not justified or the punishment should be less severe. People can be determined to will certain ends without having been brainwashed. A drug addict for example suffers from a compulsive and controlling desire and has lost his free will. Addiction impairs the will. If he acts on the basis of this compulsive desire and commits a crime along the way, it’s common to take the absence of free will into account when determining the severity of the punishment. Both external manipulation of our psychology and internal compulsions can force us to do things we don’t desire or choose to do, and they can even force us to desire or choose things we wouldn’t freely desire or choose. (Hypnosis can also be an example). In either case, we are not culpable, or at least the level of our culpability is reduced.

3. The criminal did not act because of “force majeure”

Force majeure is a term for an action that is caused by events or circumstances beyond the control of the agent. For example, someone kills another person because he was instructed to do so by gunmen holding his children hostage. Sometimes, there are external constraints on the range of options we have, and things beyond our control can force us to act (or not act) in a certain way.

This condition should be distinguished from free will. It’s not because some external causes force you to act in a certain way that you lose your free will. You act in a certain way but at the same time you don’t have to want to act in that way.

4. The criminal was aware of alternative courses of action and of the moral significance of those alternatives

For example, if a criminal was convinced that he had no alternative and had to commit the crime, then he may not be culpable, even if in reality there were alternatives. Imagine the same case of the father being forced to kill by gunmen holding his children hostage. Maybe there was an easy and safe way for the police to free the children. However, if the father was unaware of this and executed the demands of the gunmen without contacting the police, then he shouldn’t be found guilty of a crime.

However, the father may have been culpably unaware: reasonable people can agree that he should and could have been aware of the possibility to involve the police, but he failed to do everything possible to examine the alternatives. In that case, he should be found guilty.

5. The criminal acted with intent

If the consequences of an action were not intended by the agent, then either he is not culpable or his culpability is diminished. This 5th condition should be distinguished from free will: an action can be undertaken with free will but without intending all the consequences that occur. A woman who is not acting compulsively (who is not addicted for example), who is not forced by external powers to desire things she would normally not desire or to do things she doesn’t want to do, and who reasonably reflected on possible alternatives, acts in a chosen way. To her surprise, her actions lead to someone’s death. She didn’t intend this outcome, and hence she’s not culpable, or at least her culpability is reduced.

6. The criminal caused the crime

There should be no doubt about the causal link between the criminal’s actions and the crime. Let’s elaborate the previous example: the woman caused the death by hitting the victim with her car. The victim didn’t violate any traffic rules for pedestrians. The woman wasn’t speeding compulsively. She wasn’t under hypnosis or forced to hit the victim by gunmen threatening her children. And she wasn’t culpably unaware of the risk of driving a car in that particular street. Moreover, there’s some medical doubt as to the actual cause of death. It seems that the pedestrian was suffering from a heart condition and a heart attack caused the pedestrian to stumble on the road. Hence the woman driver isn’t culpable.

7. The criminal is found guilty after a fair trial

Only if the rules on the fairness of criminal trials are respected can we impose criminal punishment. A person accused of a crime should be able to use a defense lawyer to guarantee that the judge takes all the 6 previous preconditions into account when sentencing. The trial should be public so that we can all see that criminal punishment is imposed fairly. Etc.

8. The criminal is found guilty on the basis of proper laws

The laws which the criminal is supposed to have violated should be universal laws. In other words, they shouldn’t be targeted at the criminal specifically. The rule of law imposes this restriction. Laws that are not equally applicable to all, including the legislators, are not proper laws, but simply a disguised form of the rule of man. Other rules of legislation should also be respected (no retroactive laws etc.).

Conclusion

If both judges and legislators keep these 8 points in mind when deciding the type and severity of the punishment that has to be imposed for a particular crime and on a particular criminal, then we will, in all likelihood, be able to avoid some of the worst injustices in our current criminal justice system. We won’t have overpopulated prisons, we won’t incarcerate people for silly offenses or lock them up for years and years for a crime that merely requires a few months, and we won’t use capital punishment as often as we do now.

Capital Punishment (25): Non-Contingent Reasons to Abolish Capital Punishment

Many people would agree that there are what we could call contingent reasons to abolish capital punishment:

  • it’s practiced in such a way that it doesn’t meet basic standards of fairness and non-cruelty:
    • for instance the racial discrepancies in the system in the U.S.
    • the irreversibility in cases of miscarriages of justice
    • and the methods used in Saudi Arabia)
  • and it also doesn’t do what proponents say it’s supposed to do:
    • it fails to deter crime when compared to life imprisonment without possibility of parole – see here and here
    • and it fails to be retributive because in many cases it could be argued that murderers for instance deserve a fate much worse than death – capital punishment is often much less than an eye for an eye; however, few proponents of capital punishment are willing to take that road.

However, is there an argument for abolition that does not depend on contingent facts? Or, in other words, even if the punishment would be administered in a totally fair, correct and non-cruel way, and even if every execution would deter n murders, would we still have reasons to abolish it? To put it in yet another way: is there something inherent in capital punishment, in the very nature of it, that justifies its abolition?

I think there is. Before I tell you, however, I just want to say that it is in a sense futile because the contingent reasons for abolition are so strong that they are enough. I don’t think we can ever find a way to apply capital punishment without discrimination, without the risk of killing innocent people, and without any cruelty (even painless executions involve psychological cruelty, often for years on end). Hence it isn’t really necessary to make the case that even in perfect circumstances – which will never pertain – capital punishment isn’t justifiable.

But I’ll make the case anyway, because it reveals something that is philosophically interesting, even if it’s not practically useful. Imagine the perfect but in my view improbably if not impossible circumstances in which capital punishment is used as a fair, non-cruel and correct way of punishing certain criminals (correct in the sense of avoiding miscarriages of justice) and thereby deterring further crime. The intention of being retributive is almost impossible, even in ideal circumstances, as I have argued above, unless we give up traditional notions of cruelty which few proponents of capital punishment are willing to give up, so we can leave that aside.

So the focus is on deterrence. What does it mean to deter? It means that criminals are used as instruments to advance the collective interest. They are sacrificed for the greater good and a resource for the benefit of others (namely the intended future victims of future murderers). When the state instrumentalizes people in this way, it sends a clear message that this is a normal way of treating people, with possibly disastrous consequences. One of the most important lessons we have learned from Immanuel Kant and others is that we should never use fellow human beings as means to an end. An offender, even the worst possible offender, has a certain value as a human being, a certain dignity if you want, which should be respected and which cannot be canceled in the process of punishment. An offender shouldn’t be a mere tool to send warnings and intimidations to possible future offenders.

Now, you could say: how is this different from life imprisonment without parole? Isn’t that also meant to deter and hence open to the same criticism? No, it isn’t. Life imprisonment is intended to stop the criminal from doing further crime, and hence the criminal isn’t used to deter others. Furthermore, life imprisonment is intended to give the criminal the opportunity to make amends.