Crime and Punishment

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Isaac Chotiner, on that Atul Gawande piece I just mentioned:

Gawande makes the case that [solitary confinement] can plausibly be called torture. He mentions that few if any other countries keep their prisoners in such conditions, and regrets this unfortunate example of American exceptionalism. However, he leaves one important point out of his otherwise exhaustive case ... Gawande never considers the idea of punishment as an end in itself, and it is here, I think, where liberal writers tend to miss a major motivating factor in our crime policy. There are numerous historical and religious reasons for this belief, and without getting bogged down in too many details, it is worth pointing out that many people believe wrongdoers "deserve" punishment for bad deeds. Others like, I would assume, Gawande, see no value in punishing people unless it serves distinct ends (keeping criminals off the street, deterring crime, etc.). Now, I happen to agree with Gawande, and I see no value in punishment for punishment's sake, but it is probably safe to say this is not a majority opinion in America. 

I don't think it's necessarily clear from the piece that Gawande sees no value in retributive justice. Certainly his argument doesn't require rejecting retribution in toto: You don't have to abandon the idea that wrongdoers deserve punishment to accept that solitary confinement is much more cruel and unusual than you might think if you've never experienced it, and thus probably shouldn't be meted out as often as it is. Just because a criminal deserves punishment doesn't mean that he deserves any punishment. Indeed, if you want a legal system in which punishments are designed to fit crimes, then that's arguably all the more reason to want a prison system that metes out punishments as they're designed to be meted out, and that doesn't permit or practice cruelties above and beyond what legislators, judges and juries have asked for.

I also wonder about Isaac's broader premise: Is it really the case that most liberals - or "liberal writers," at least - reject outright the notion that lawbreakers deserve punishment for their crimes? Obviously, left-wingers tend to emphasize rehabilitation more than right-wingers do, but my assumption has always been that most liberals would agree in some sense with the premise that punishing criminals is a matter of justice as well as deterrence. But I suppose could be wrong.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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