A Social History of Punishment

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Hester Prynne at the Stocks - an engraved illustration from an 1878 edition of The Scarlet Letter (wikimedia/Wikimedia Commons)

What is punishment for? Is it a moral act or an emotional one? Is it retribution? Which countries or societies punish well, and is the U.S. one of them? David W. Garland, professor of law and sociology at New York University and author of Peculiar Institution: America's Death Penalty in an Age of Abolition and The Culture of Control: Crime and Social Order in Contemporary Society discusses the social history of punishment and how our own criminal justice system fits in.


David Garland

Comments [20]

HDT Disciple from Kauneonga Lake, NY

"People are in jail because they broke the law." At one time in history that would have applied to interracial couples who had the audacity to marry, and in Germany for conducitng business with a Jew. I am certain there are innemurable other examples. Many laws are, arguably, immoral, and sentencing is so erratic that even the best laws are misapplied. As for no one going to prison as a result of the fiancial crisis because "no laws were broken," perhaps that proves my point from a different view, that some things that are not illegal should be. When we see law enforcement opposing the easing of drug laws, particularly for marijuana, it seems something is at play here other than justice. Read Thomas Payne's statement on the "avidity to punish."

Aug. 14 2014 08:11 AM
Donald J. Sepanek from Bayonne, NJ

The retributive or reciprocal effect of punishment that your guest speaks of indicates that punishment has its roots in aggression. That is, it was originally an aggressive response evoked by damage or injury to the organism which succeeded (in the short run, anyway) in eliminating the troublesome behavior of the offending individual.

Aug. 13 2014 04:28 PM
Rene Lape from Huntington, NY

Listening to the discussion you had on the idea that prisons are not good places to "rehabilitate" people, especially young people, a lot of good things were said. But as the daughter of a woman who spent most of her life institutionalized in upstate NY and whose sister, suffering from the same schizophrenia, spent her post-age 37 years without ANY care or community context. While it could be argued that my mother's liberties were infringed upon, I was able to grow up without the craziness around me - unlike my sister. The wave of "anti-institutionalization" thinking going on now in the criminal justice area worries me. Before public institutions that are charged with the care of people who cannot live constructively in families and communities - because of mental issues or criminal behaviors (or the common mix of the two) - we need to make sure there are places set up to treat them on a local level. Talk is not enough. I fear that what lies behind it all is a fear that it is all getting too expensive. So we talk about how local treatments could be more effective or how people's lives could be better, but the local help that is needed is never adequately thought through or funded; it all just leads to more chaos. Sometimes things can't be perfect. I think all of those who are diagnosed with mental conditions should be separately housed and cared for by people trained to deal with them, not prison guards.

Aug. 13 2014 02:01 PM

The social skills required for successful participation in a community are not ones emphasized by U.S. prisons generally. Those who have been calling in talking about how prison "changed" them stress that the violence they were exposed to makes them more desperate ("nothing scares me now"; "my life is down the tubes") and more frightened ("I would not touch a beer before drinking ever again"); they may think that shows progress of some type, but actually it just shows them (as Dr. Garland emphasized) bending to the power structure more willingly.

Rehabilitation and successful re-entry into the community should be the only goal of prisons. If prison can't help with that, we should find another institution or strategy that can. That's all.

Aug. 13 2014 12:07 PM
Ed from Larchmont

There are a lot of prison ministries, many people find a spiritual life in prison, and turn their lives around.

Aug. 13 2014 11:50 AM
John from NYC

The journalist and author Matt Taibbi discussed this topic recently on WNYC. This was part of a discussion on his book "The Divide". I haven't read it yet but the topic today was definitely connected to the relationship between "powerful and the powerless" as your guest today discussed.

Aug. 13 2014 11:36 AM
Jack from Manhattan

At worst, the recidivism rate is about 80%; prisons work for about 1 in 5. Not bad considering we're talking about a social intervention.

Want fewer minorities in jail? Get them better lawyers. It's just that simple. (Not sure if society wants to pay for white-shoed representation, sadly)

Aug. 13 2014 11:22 AM

Excellent segment.

Looks like your link to Professor David Garland is wrong.

Aug. 13 2014 11:19 AM
Francis Torchio from Bronx, New York

Regarding David Garland's comment; it is true that the death penalty is localized in the US. According to the US Constitution, the Federal Government is given certain powers; those powers not Federal are reserved to the states. In Europe, change in this area is from the top down even if the populace does not agree. As a matter of fact, no nation can enter the European Union with the death penalty on its books, what the citizens feel is of no consequence. Democracy from the top down is less democratic than it is in the US in that respect. Ronald Reagan was for greater local control in his first inaugural when he stated that government is the problem and not the solution. This is one reason why we do not have a national law allowing gay marriage but instead leave it up to the individual states. The US has been struggling to find a balance between a strong central government and respecting the rights of individuals and states.

Aug. 13 2014 11:16 AM
Amy from Manhattan

martin from manhattan, in case you don't go back to the comments from the previous segment, have you seen the movie "Slavery by Another Name"? It shows exactly what you're talking about, starting w/how that clause in the 13th Amendment was deliberately ab/used by finding excuses to arrest black men &, in effect, put them back into slavery.

Aug. 13 2014 11:15 AM
Ed from Larchmont

(Except for abortion, which is the death penalty of the innocent.)

Aug. 13 2014 11:15 AM
Amy from Manhattan

Saying that only murderers are now executed = assuming that all those convicted are guilty & ignoring what we've learned from The Innocence Project & the many cases of people convicted--often because of police or prosecutor misconduct--who have been exonerated.

Aug. 13 2014 11:13 AM
CR from Manhattan

people in jail are there because they broke the law. they all knew the acts they were committing were illegal when the did them. their going to prison is result of actions they chose to commit, not a "system that is racist or corrupt."

there are few/no people in jail from the "financial crisis" because they did not break the law. there are myriad agencies who have been trying for years to find where a law was broken - they would LOVE to arrest and jail an investment banker, trader, fund manager. LOVE TO. Look at Enron, Worldcom, Madoff, Drexel, Tyco et al. it's not that hard a concept to grasp. just because you want a boogie man doesn't mean one has to exist.

don't conflate the two. not everything in life is an issue of the 99% vs the 1%, even if that's what you want it to be.

Aug. 13 2014 11:13 AM
Jim B

What institional interests, if any, promote or support capital punishment in the U.S.?

Aug. 13 2014 11:10 AM
Jerry from NYC

can deterrent factor of death penalty be proven? some academia claims up to 20 innocent people are saved by one execution

Aug. 13 2014 11:01 AM
pliny from soho

what about the woman taken in adultery
being stoned to death in the bible
they are still doing it in Muslim countries
are they just being remarkably punitive

Aug. 13 2014 11:00 AM
martin from manhattan

a theory. crime and punihment in america is a vestige of slavery. 13th amendment ended it but allowed for incarceration in response to crime. this has been engrained the culture and manifests itself in the criminal justice system.

Aug. 13 2014 10:38 AM
Melissa from Queens

In the early 70s my mother put pepper in my mouth for cursing. She deftly waited a while after the utterance and then then lured me to the kitchen door telling me she had a secret to tell me. I think friends were over, and I was too embarrassed to show what happened, suffering in silence until I went to a faucet to rinse my tongue.

Aug. 13 2014 10:18 AM

Federal Mandatory Minimum sentences were a Congressional response to the understandable tendency of Judges not to impose long sentences for victimless crimes - drug use, and sale to willing buyers. So today the "United States has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world, at 754 per 100,000 (as of 2009). ***
In the twenty-five years since the passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, the United States penal population rose from around 300,000 to more than two million. Between 1986 and 1991, African-American women's incarceration in state prisons for drug offenses increased by 828 percent."

Aug. 13 2014 10:16 AM

Every time there is a perceived armed confrontation with NYPD, the suspect is always taken down in a hail of gunfire. Why is there never an attempt to shoot to wound? It's like sanctioned execution.

Aug. 13 2014 09:39 AM

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