Should Vengeance Play Any Role in Incarceration?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Odell Newton, in framed photographs (Greg Kahn)

A reader touches on several themes of TNC’s cover story:

The essay is indeed long, with a lot to chew on. One thing that struck me is the lack of input from families suffering from having a loved one murdered by a previously violent criminal who was released after a 5 or 10 year sentence, or who was never imprisoned despite a life of criminal violence. Such an omission is nearly always the case when dealing with this topic from the perspective of the suffering families of those imprisoned for life.

If someone wishes to make the argument that violent offenders, once they get into their 60s, have almost always aged out of their violent tendencies, that’s a debate worth having. But to simply ignore the percentage of murders that are committed by people who are younger than that, who have a previous history of engaging in felonious violence, is, well, incomplete. I’d suggest that without that examination, this topic can't be addressed in an intellectually rigorous fashion.  

Secondly, while it may be true that criminality—as wrongly and loosely as that label is deployed by the state—is directly correlated with material deprivation, it is simply not true that murder is directly correlated with material deprivation. I think we can agree that the percentage of Americans who were materially deprived in 1930 was significantly higher than the percentage in 1990. Despite that, murder peak of 1930 was less than that of 1990:

There is much that cannot be disputed in Coates’s essay. The War on Drugs has been a corrupt, abject, disaster from the beginning, and it is contemptible that the people who have voted for expanding the prison industrial complex have also mostly thought it acceptable that prisons are not operated as lawful environments.

Another reader responds to the previous ones who expressed no sympathy for Odell Newton, the central character in TNC’s essay who’s serving a life sentence for killing a cab driver:

It’s responses like the ones from your two readers that temper my hope for criminal justice reform. They probably wouldn’t admit it, but the main purpose of our justice system as it currently exists is vengeance.

It exists to provide us with permission to exclude certain people from society, treat them as irredeemable, and feel good about ourselves while we mistreat them as we please. Every now and again there will be some 60 Minutes story about a perfect victim of the system—someone who didn’t do anything wrong (or whatever “wrong” was completely trivial), but was treated as though they were convicted—and we’ll all say “how awful” and move on, because surely everyone else “deserves” it. Kalief Browder, in their minds, must be the exception and not the rule.

But I ask these readers: What moral law tells you that when one life is taken or destroyed, so must another? Odell Newton murdered a man when he was 16. Surely, the family of the murdered cab driver feels that pain acutely every day, but why should that mean the end of that 16-year-old’s life as well? Our justice system is supposed to be about rehabilitation. Do my fellow readers not believe that to be worth pursuing?

Finally, readers who bring up the cab driver’s family should remember that Mr. Newton is not paying for his debt to that family. He is paying a debt that we decided he owed us, meaning society. So it is not enough to bring up the sorrow of the family of the victim. You must also answer the question, “What does society gain by keeping this man in prison?” I hope they have a better answer to that than self-righteousness.

You have an answer? Email hello@theatlantic.com to chime in. Another reader, Jim Elliott—a long-time member of TNC’s commenting community, The Horde—knows what vengeance feels like:

I read Coates’ latest broadside against the comfort of our presuppositions at an odd time for me. I know the reality of what Coates writes, that the American use of incarceration, the warehousing of the uncouth and unwanted—the blatant proof that gives lie to any religious inheritance of forgiveness and repentance that we so blithely ignore. I know it utterly fails to serve the purpose we would demand of it, to dissuade lawbreakers and punish the wicked. And yet …

Last year, my car was broken in to, a number of items stolen. The thieves managed to leave fingerprints, which lead to a black teen from Alameda county in California, who was already on probation for similar crimes. His hearing in juvenile court was today. I was provided a form to make a statement to the Santa Clara county probation department and the juvenile courts regarding this crime, and its impact.

I know the statistics, that such young men are grossly over-punished compared to peers. I know that such punishment does nothing but increase the odds that they will return to a life of crime. I also know that juveniles who commit property crimes are the most likely to be recidivists. I know that this young man’s probationary plan just a few dozen miles north and east of me did nothing to prevent him from doing the same thing again, riding with a crew to violate my neighborhood.

And I know what being the victim of crime feels like now. I feel a pointless, fuming, impotent rage. I want this young man punished for violating my wife and children’s sense of security. I want him placed in a cage for lacking the basic human capacity to recognize that he is not entitled to someone else’s belongings. I am enraged at him because he made me feel powerless, and so I want his very dignity and agency stripped from him until he shows genuine repentance. I want him removed from family and home, because all my rage lets me see is their failure to control his selfish impetuousness.

A part of me is appalled at these feelings, horrified that a part of me would discard a youth so callously out of sheer vengeance. A part of me relishes the idea of an image of this boy in an orange jumpsuit and chains. And this makes me very, very relieved that his fate is not in my hands.

We judge others by their actions, and ourselves by our intentions. It is worthwhile, then, that victims should play only a small role in punishment. We are blinded by rage, by shame.

Punishment also requires mercy, and mercy requires empathy. Better that this young man is subject to the judgment and will of people who, I hope, still retain a degree of empathy and regard for his potential. This is not to speak of absolution and forgiveness—these are things whose moral worth I question—but most certainly repentance is not possible without the opportunity to demonstrate it, and if I had my way, that young man would never have it.

Do not leave punishment in the hands of those who have been wronged, or those whose sympathies lie only for victims. That is how injustice is bred. And we have seen, as Coates shows us, how injustice constantly consumes in order to reproduce, only to eat its young.