HGTC Ethnic Studies Punishments and Crimes Questions

As noted in this week’s videos, the act of punishing often involves the intention to in some way ‘harm’ the person being punished for a ‘harm’ he/she caused to someone else.  That is, we often punish people for the ‘harm’ they have caused by ‘harming’ them back.  Harming someone and/or acting with the intention to harm someone is often considered to be morally problematic (i.e., “bad”).  And yet, most people consider acts of punishment to be morally okay.  Herein lies the ethical/moral dilemma.  Namely, how can it be morally okay to ‘harm’ people in some cases but not in others?  This question has prompted various legal, ethical, political, historical, etc., scholars to propose theories about how punishment might be morally justified.  For example, some claim that punishments might be justified insofar as they give victims what they deserve (victim retributivism), others contend that punishments may be justified if/when they give offenders what they deserve (offender retributivism), others contend that punishments may be justified insofar as they serve to ‘right’ previous ‘wrongs’ (restitution/restoration), etc.  See this week’s videos and video outline for a survey of the many ways that theorists have tried to provide moral justifications for punishment. 

Interestingly enough, regardless of the particular punishment theory that one finds most appealing, questions of “proportionality” (“fitness”) will always remain and still need answers.  That is, even after one has determined why punishments may be morally okay there will still be questions regarding precisely which types/forms of punishments “fit” certain crimes.  We often hear the claim that “the punishment must fit the crime”, but what does this statement actually mean?  Does it mean that ‘likes must always be met with likes’?  For example, is the only fitting punishment for someone that steals a car to have the state or perhaps the victim steal the thief’s car in return?  Or, to rape the rapist?  A punishment system that followed a ‘likes for likes’ approach would, at least in principle, be one of the most proportionate of systems.  Theft would be met with theft in return, a hit to someone face would result in a hit to the hitter’s face, rapists would be raped back, etc.  But, after a few moments of thought, many tend to suspect that a strict likes for likes based system would be very practically challenging to implement in a variety of everyday cases, e.g., how do we steal the car of a car thief when he/she doesn’t own a car?  Or, how do we kill the child of a child killer when he/she does not have any children of her own?  Or, how do we “do the same back” to someone that illegally immigrates into this country?  Etc. 

These observations/questions prompt the recognition that, in practice, it likely won’t be possible to make all punishments perfectly “fit” all crimes, essentially, a strict ‘likes for likes’ approach simply won’t practically work in many cases.   Thus, we face the daunting task of trying to determine what types of punishments seem at least “somewhat fitting” to certain types of crimes.   An Ohio judge, Michael Cicconetti, is famous/infamous for attempting to come up with punishments (for first time offenders) that are more “fitting” for specific crimes.  See the links to articles about Cicconetti in this week’s module.  Cicconetti’s punishments are definitely neat to think about and they may serve as good examples of how more “fitting” forms of punishments might be implemented within our current legal system.     

This week’s questions:

1) Which of the theories of justifying punishment, e.g., harm-reduction, denunciation, etc., do you find most appealing?  Your reasons?

2) Should an effort always be made to make sure that punishments “fit” crimes?  Or, is the typical default setting of our current criminal punishment system morally okay?  That is, does the current system of handing out one or more forms of community service, fines, probation, jail and/or prison time, etc., for most all forms of crime seem morally okay?  Even when a crime does not cost a victim any money, time, doesn’t take away the victim’s freedom, etc.?  Your reasoning?  

3) Consider the case of Bob destroying Sally’s one-of-a-kind picture of her deceased grandmother.  Should Bob be sent to jail  or prison for his actions?  Even though he didn’t incarcerate Sally?  Should Bob be fined and have to pay lots of money when his actions didn’t cost Sally any money, etc.?   What might be a more “fitting” punishment for Bob’s actual action?  Should a judge look for a ‘creative punishment/solution’ akin to those often handed down by Judge Cicconetti?  Would something far more creative than mere fines, jail time, etc., seem more “morally fitting” for the crime Bob actually committed?  If so, then what might the creative punishment be?  Your reasoning?

4) What about the case when Bob actually kills Sally’s one-of-a-kind grandmother?  What would the most “morally fitting” punishment be for an action like this?  Your reasoning?    

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