Monday, May 30, 2011

Why do we imprison people?

Kwame Anthony Appiah, a philosophy professor at Princeton University, in his article in the Washington Times on the subject of “What will future generations condemn us for?” had listed, among other things, our practice of imprisoning people, which, he believes, is certainly destined for future condemnation.

Coming to think of it, what do we really intend to achieve by imprisoning people? Prevent them from committing more crimes? Set examples that would serve to deter other budding offenders? Satisfy a principle that the ‘guilty should not go unpunished?

Two philosophers, Ken Taylor and John Terry, have tried to tackle the issue. They ask, “ What are prisons for? And run through five reasons. (source)

. retribution, crime deterrence, rehabilitation, restitution to the victims, or social denunciation.

In the first case, we should set up the system so that criminals are justly punished for what they did, though of course that raises the exceedingly thorny question of what, exactly, constitutes just punishment.

In the second case, however, we are concerned with affecting the criminal’s cost-benefit analysis, so to decrease the chances that he (most criminals, particularly of the violent type, are men) will not in fact engage in the crime to begin with.
In the case of rehabilitation, one cannot even properly talk of punishment, but rather of an attempt to change the ways of the individual and turn him into a productive member of society.

Restitution to the victims is yet another concept possibly informing how and why we imprison people, where the goal is to set up conditions that make it possible for the criminal to compensate (according to whatever parameters) the victim or the victim's family.

And finally, the social denunciation approach says that we imprison people because we wish to send the message that certain kinds of behavior are unacceptable in our society.

Naturally, we may wish to achieve more than one of these goals, but the point is that we ought to be clear on which ones, on how to prioritize them (is retribution more important than deterrence?), and especially on how to go about maximizing the likelihood of the intended outcome(s). But we don’t. The public and politicians don’t seem to make these (not so subtle) distinctions most of the time, let alone engage in serious reflection about what they mean and how they can be pursued. This is bizarre, considering that the prison system is dramatically affecting the lives of literally millions of people, many of whom arguably shouldn’t be there in the first place, as well as costing the rest of us an increasingly large bundle of money, at a time when cries of cutting the budget are all the rage

So, tell me, what is Kanimozhi in jail for?


ramesh said...

i add this to my "things to do as experiments when i conquer a territory" list ..

Raj said...

Ramesh, Heil Ramesh.

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