When you take a deep look at our society today, it is inevitable to realize that our society has several issues and challenges facing it. Some of these issues have more leverage, sensitivity and tenacity over the other. One of the bigger problems facing the United States today is the issue of Crime and Punishment. Not a day goes by in our beloved country without a crime being committed. If you were to turn on your television to a News Channel right now, I guarantee that within the first 10 minutes of watching, one or two crimes would have been reported.
This shows the increasing rate of crime in the United Sates. Like many other countries in the world, the U.S criminal justice systems utilizes a punitive method such as fines, jail time, and or death as the ultimate tool for curbing and prosecuting crimes in its society. In general, most people believe that the government is solely responsible for the definition of a crime, what constitutes a crime, and the “appropriate” punishment for each crime.
However, is it possible that some cultural factors could actually be aiding this system of “an Eye for an Eye?” If you are a criminal justice student, a lawyer, a social worker, a police officer, a corrections officer, or a member of an advocacy/human rights group, you most likely have your preferred definition of a crime and what constitutes a crime. However, to me, a crime is a behavior or action that goes against the law of a land and therefore begets a punishment according to the law of that land, while a punishment is the action to address the crime as it best fits.
Something I have always found interesting is the question of punishment in society. Why do we critically believe that punitive punishment is of any help to anyone? This way of thinking particularly tells of our societal values and hence, critical to our overall societal norms. The U.S. system of punitive punishment is quite interesting. Why do we fail to examine the reasons why someone transgressed against us, but instead focus on how we can punish them? Right from childhood, they’ve been teaching us how our actions affect others, and how there is a clear and distinguishable right from wrong. However, as we mature, we often realize that nothing is so simple, and that there are all sorts of gray in-between. What is the psychology behind punishment? Is there a psychological motivation behind punitive punishment? These are important questions that speaks to one of the most damaging aspects of the criminal justice system and pertains to 1/3 of Americans. It is a critical aspect of order in the society, and it addresses the major issue in the American justice system of how punishment is punitive and subsequently ineffective. Punishment permeates our lives from a young age and has real and lasting impacts on the way we view the world and the choices we make.
1/3 of Americans have contact with the criminal justice system. Although the population that experiences this is often mitigated by things like educational achievement, the odds that a college student has been or will be affected in some way by the criminal justice system is high. This subsequently speaks to the pervasiveness of this topic. We were told the best way to secure a bright future and live a great life is by staying in school, graduating from college and landing a great job. However, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, America has roughly the same number of residents with criminal records as it does residents with college degrees. Indirectly, we can say that 40% of our population has a criminal record. This is an extremely high percentage. Basically, for every person who gets educated, there is someone getting incarcerated/ released from prison. The American criminal justice system currently holds over 2.3 million people in jail and prisons. At this number, there are more people in the American prisons and jails than the entire population of Slovenia, a country in central Europe.
Apart from the over 2.3 million people serving time, an additional 7 million citizens are under some type of correctional supervision making America world’s leader in incarceration (Muenster and Trone). I personally do not believe in punitive punishment and I always wonder why some other people do. I feel like our society impacts people’s views of punishment. The American attitudes on sentencing policy are characterized by punitiveness. Unlike other western industrialized nations, public opinion on sentencing policy in the United States is characterized by harsh attitudes. In a survey on victimization across 16 nations, people were asked what the appropriate punishment should be for a 21-year-old second-time burglar who had stolen a television set. 56% of U.S. respondents chose prison, compared to about 34% of residents of other nations. 20% of respondents in Denmark, 19% in Finland, and 12% in France chose prison (Van Kesteren, Mayhew, & Nieuwbeerta, 2000).
America is one of the only western industrialized nations to maintain the death penalty as a sanction. Additionally, American sentences are longer than other western industrialized nations. Majority of the American prisons do not support rehabilitative efforts, and American recidivism rates are abysmal with about 70% of previously incarcerated people expected to return to prison within 5 years of their release (CNN News). This shows that there are cultural factors correlating to the support and the subsequent use of punitive punishment in corrections. The most exciting discovery I came across during this research is a source by Bill Wringe which examined the theories of deviance and essentially why (in theory) people commit crimes.
I find this extremely interesting because I think a similar sort of logic could be applied to the reasons why or why not people support punitive punishment. According to this article, theories of punishment can be outline in an expressive and denunciation dimension, and there are proposed merits of denomination over “expressivist” dimensions of punishment. Wringe also argued that expressive dimensions of punishment fail to adequately serve their purpose and subsequently their audience. I totally agree with this as I do feel a lot of the punishment for various offenses in the American justice system do not fit the crime. They are usually too extreme and not correctional.
Is the use of punitive punishment influenced by cultural factors? The most convincing answer to my research question is that yes, cultural factors do correlate to the support and subsequently use of punitive punishment in corrections. Punitive punishment has been a mainstay of American Corrections for at least the last four decades. In a sense, it is now sometimes even intertwined with our view of justice in a vein reminiscent of Hammurabi’s code. Justice for a victim is seeing the perpetrator punished. This public perception of justice as punishment has led to increased use of punitive punishment in American Corrections.
As cited by Peter K Enns in “The Public’s Increasing Punitiveness and Its Influence on Mass Incarceration in the United States,” it is this public support for punitive punishment that leads to its use. In fact, Enns estimates that there would be 20% fewer incarcerations today if support for the practice had waned in the 1970s. In 1988, Willie Horton became the poster child for tough on crime. To many an epitome of the systems failures, his arrest for murder while on furlough sparked outrage and inspired the widespread use of Soft on Crime as political derision. Public fear stoked the flames of mandatory minimums and increasing incarcerations. Although public fear was not entirely caused by the crimes of Willie Horton, his sensationalized story became a political talking point, and subsequently his arrests became a factor that would influence American corrections policy for decades.
Based on the analysis above, it is safe to say that the use of punitive punishment is influenced and perpetuated by cultural factors which correlate to its support and subsequent use. Polls and other demographic data seem to show that there are indicators of a person’s stance on punitive punishment, especially among party lines. Additionally, punitive punishment has become highly politicized, with certain candidates courting the designation of “tough on crime”. Despite the mounting evidence of its ineffectiveness, punitive punishment is still the defining feature of American Corrections. This is due to its support without reasonable basis. However, interestingly, this is starting to shift. What’s most salient about this argument is that today as we see rhetoric on punishment start to change, we’re starting to see a trend towards reform in the criminal justice system. There is an increased focus on rehabilitation as opposed to punishment. Additionally, thanks to this shift in public opinion, and especially in the polls, much more consideration is being paid to finding policies that impact recidivism, rather than just locking more people up.
The main question driving my research is the thinking behind punitive punishment, and how cultural factors correlate to an opinion supporting it. This topic considers the societal context in which the theory of punitive punishment exists and attempts to understand how a person’s background may influence them to support punitive punishment. Although, this may present some unique challenges, the topic still examines a single theory of punishment in direct correlation to society. I am not against punishment. I am not saying that criminals should not be punished. However, if we try to understand what drove these criminals into committing such acts, we may find a balanced and useful correctional method that would help them and the society at large.