A punitive people

Have you ever seen a verdict reported in the U.S. media, read the comments, and seen somebody say, “That seems like a just and fair verdict”? Have you ever seen somebody say, when a crime is reported, “I hope that person gets the minimum sentence”? Have you ever seen anybody rejoice when a stranger is let out of prison, glad that that person can rejoin society as a productive citizen?

Of course not.

Because we are a punitive people. We are a vengeful nation. We believe that the harshest penalty is always warranted, and that even that is not enough. We just keep upping the ante and calling for blood. We do it because our leaders have done the same thing: in their efforts to appear “tough on crime,” they have, in the last few decades, increased penalties for most crimes exponentially (while also inventing many new crimes). They have given us permission to think that we are justified in punishing anybody we want as much as we want, and we have ran with it.

We need to stop. The most basic ethical stance is the golden rule: treat others as you would want to be treated. None of us, when we’ve done wrong, wants to be given the harshest possible punishment. We want mercy and a second chance. We want what we categorically deny to others.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that we ignore crime, or don’t punish. It does mean that we should seek to give people the lightest possible punishment necessary to ensure public safety–based on research, not on public perception and media-generated hysteria–and every opportunity to go on to become a productive, law-abiding citizen after their punishment is finished.

We make sure that punishments end.

The irony of the registry, of course, is that it is only legal because it has been classified as non-punitive. And yet that’s obviously not how most people view it. Most people see the registry as a fitting punishment for men who have committed crimes involving sex: the attitude is, they committed the crime, therefore they deserve this penalty. If they didn’t want to be on the registry, they shouldn’t have done it. But the registry cannot function as punishment, or else it is unconstitutional.

The sex offender registry was originally designed to be a list of people who, based on their past offenses, would be suspects if a child were kidnapped, sexually assaulted, and maybe murdered. It wasn’t designed to be a list of guys in their 20s who have engaged in or would consider engaging in sexual activity with willing post-pubescent teens. It wasn’t designed to be a list of men who made one really stupid choice in what they downloaded.

It’s almost funny. After hearing my husband’s situation once, somebody said to me, in justification of why he should indeed be on a registry for two and a half decades, “If that had been a real 15yo, she might have regretted her decision to have sex with an older guy when she got older.” As if the purpose of the sex offender registry is to provide a list of guys who women might later regret having sex with.

I am NOT saying that men in their 20s who engage in sexual activity with willing post-pubescent teens shouldn’t be punished. I don’t think we have any universal moral imperative to punish such behavior, but if we decide as a society that these are relationships we want to discourage, we can legally do so. But do we really need to punish these men for decades? And what makes us feel justified in doing so?

We feel justified because we’ve been told we can. We can punish criminals as much as we want. And that is not okay.


3 thoughts on “A punitive people

  1. rewdiazepam

    The thoughts expressed here, and in all these previous blog entries, represent some of the most common sense approches to the sex offender dilemma I have heard in a while. I have been preaching the very same thing for many years.
    Unfortunately, the media has demonized sex offenders, regardless of magnitude of their crime, as some kind of sub-human monsters; therefore, people have no problem with the lengthy sentences meted out for even non-contact sex offenses.
    It is a shame that the people in this country feel a need to find a group of people to hate, but it is true. Society needs someone to hate; I suppose it makes them feel better about their own character flaws.
    And we advertise our country as a “Christian Nation.” Tsk, Tsk.


  2. Nathan Phillips

    I agree with rewdiazepam – Great, sensible thoughts in all your posts here.

    I think some people get a kind of positive emotional charge when they see another human as “wrong” in some way. So they have an emotional incentive to categorize people as “wrong” in their mind. Since it feels good to do it, they jump to it quickly and are happy to expand the criteria for inclusion in that category (since that means more opportunities to do it).

  3. Pingback: Clarity in the midst of contradictions and confusion | power of language blog: partnering with reality by JR Fibonacci

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