The Role of Vengeance in Punishment

On March 19 and 20th, 2009, U.C. Hastings, the 1066 Foundation, and the Hastings Race and Poverty Law Journal put on the California Correctional Crisis Conference. I will admit that though my legal practice has focused on civil rights, I’d never paid much attention to this issue. I’ve never really questioned my feelings on criminal law, on why we punish those who step across the line we’ve drawn between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. I’ve always been peripherally aware that there are serious problems with the system we’ve built. I know that a ridiculously high percentage of black men end up incarcerated at least once in their lives. I know that our prisons are overcrowded, and that state spending on prisons will have to continue to increase, taking money away from services like education. I know that locking people up for possession doesn’t stop them from using, and that pre-set sentencing minimums prevent us from setting punishments that fit the crime committed. I’ve known all of this, but until recently, I never considered how it is actually my problem, other than the fact that my tax dollars are being used to pay for this giant, ineffective, constantly growing prison system. What I came to understand at the Conference was that the problems in our correctional system are not going to be easy to fix, but it will be impossible to do so unless we all take a serious look at our role in creating them in the first place.

Why do we punish? In law school, my criminal law professor said that society punishes for the following purposes: retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation. Rehabilitation is probably the noblest reason for punishment, and probably the least likely reason we do it. While the passage of Proposition 5 indicates a public interest in providing treatment for non-violent offenders with drug addictions, the vast majority of prisoners don’t have access to the programs they need to be successful upon release. Based on the societal correlation between being ‘tough on crime’ and increased sentences, it would seem that retribution, deterrence, and incapacitation are the real motivating factors behind our criminal justice system. Whether long prison sentences actually serve as a deterrent is questionable, and most people will admit that locking ‘bad’ people up to prevent them from coming into contact with the public only works for as long as that person is incarcerated. So- we’re left with retribution or, more aptly, vengeance.

Vengeance is an emotional reaction, and a human one. Especially where particularly reprehensible crimes like rape, murder, and crimes against children and the elderly are concerned, our desire to hurt the person responsible is what motivates us. We are angry, and we want our pound of flesh. Politicians play into this emotional reaction by promising harsher punishments and longer sentences. We name laws after the victims of horrible crimes, and tell ourselves that these steps will prevent future horrible things from happening. But is that true? Is this working?

Does locking someone up in a cage with two strangers for 23 hours a day, without providing drug treatment, job training, or medical care for a number of years create a sane productive member of society?

It doesn’t. It can’t. Where the goal of punishment is vengeance, the focus of the system is necessarily reactive instead of preventative. According to a 2008 report, one out of every hundred people is incarcerated in the United States today. Is it really possible that all of these people are beyond help, or should we instead put more resources towards preparing them to reenter society and make better choices in the future? When we stop looking at prisoners as ‘others’ and start thinking of them as people, it’s more difficult to send them ‘away’ without considering where we’re sending them, or how that will impact their ability to succeed when they come back. 1/100 is large chunk of the population to write off, and in the end, doing so does not create a world we want to live in. It’s time for us, individual citizens, to consider what that world should look like, and then take a good hard look at what our desire for vengeance is doing to hinder our progress. Until we do, our correctional system will continue to be in crisis.