Punishing the Guilty

In no other area of public service are officials faced with such moral decisions then in determining suitable punishment for offenders. The ability to take away a citizen’s freedoms or suspend their rights is a great power which only a legitimate authority may perform. Several current issues within the criminal justice system may be looked upon as examples involving these moral decisions. They include capital punishment, three-strike laws, maximum-security confinement, and construction of supermax prisons, private prisons and the increased surveillance of sex offenders. 

Among the most morally debated issues in punishment today is that of capital punishment. Although the United States government still possesses the authority to sentence an offender to death for their crimes, policymakers and society as a whole are divided about its morality. Some believe that it is moral as punishment for a like crime, “an eye for an eye”. However, diversity in religious beliefs and ideologies create an atmosphere of differing rule on moral behavior of government. Most important in this issue is the ultimate power of the state to end the life of one of its’ citizens. Proponents argue that the Constitution of the United States specifically grants this power to the government within the Fifth Amendment. It states that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law. It is argued that the Constitution authorizes the deprivation of life provided if there is due process of law. However others contend that this is not an authorizing statement for the use of capital punishment.

In her book, “Criminal Justice Ethics; Theory and Practice” criminal justice expert Cyndi Banks explains habitual felony laws, commonly known as “three-strike” legislation. They began in 1993 when an initiative was placed on the ballot in Washington State mandating the punishment of life imprisonment without parole for offenders convicted for a third time of specified violent or serious felonies. Initially these laws added to the problem of overcrowding of prisons because offenders could be sentenced to longer terms based on previous offenses, even if the current crime was not as serious.

Opponents of these laws “argue that this is an unrealistic expectation and bad policy making.” Banks explains, “Because it relies not only on offenders being informed of the consequences of further offenses, but also on a high probability of their arrest and conviction”. These laws do not take into account individual differences in future offending especially the fact that offending decreases with age, limiting the need for lengthy sentences for less serious offenses. Proponents counter by stating that these laws target repeat, lifetime offenders. Three-strike laws effectively reduce first time offenders from future offenses through deterrence and incapacitate repeat offenders with tougher sentencing.

In addition to these added sentence lengths because of “three-strike” laws, prison sentences may be very different depending upon the institution and level of security. Minimum-security installations impose little limits on an offender’s life other that time being served within the facility. In these prisons, time spent is the punishment for the individual’s crimes. Likewise, additional losses of liberties are not appropriate, such as loss of family contact. However, prison terms spent in maximum-security confinement are much stricter. A maximum security prison increase even more these social controls. Because of security reasons, offenders are limited in their access to family and all other outside contacts. Because of this, prisoners sentenced to maximum-security prisons face a much tougher sentence than those living in less secure institutions. Opponents argue that the more rules imposed upon the inmates are added punishment to the original punishment of time.

More cause for concern then supermax and other maximum security-type prisons are those that are privately run. These prisons are run for profit. Although the United States Constitution allows the government the power to impose punishment on those that break its laws, there exists no other authority with this power to withhold liberties. Opponents of private correctional institutions question the morality of allowing a private corporation with the power of incarcerating individuals. Additionally, they argue whether or not profit is an ideal motive in maintaining imprisonment for offenders. The proponents of prison privatization tend to justify their support by highlighting the economic cost of prison.

With the moral issue of authority in incarcerating individuals who offend aside, other important moral issues exist. In maintaining order within a private prison, opponents question not only their authority in performing punishment for offenses, but also question their ability to the utilization of deadly force. It remains a moral issue as to whether the United States government has the power to take the life of an offender, some question corporate prisons’ authority to use such force. 

Megan’s laws create and entirely new level of punishment for sexual offenders. Those that are convicted of sex crimes against children face identification and continued surveillance even after completing their prison sentence. Megan’s laws require released offenders to provide local governments with information of their crimes, where they will be living and other personal information. This becomes a moral issue because these individuals are forced to serve a form of punishment after their sentence in prison has been fulfilled. For some this practice of registration will continue for the rest of their lives. For others, there is a set of years after which they are free to no longer register.

All of these and other issues confront policy-makers, courts, and the correctional system on a regular basis. The authority to withhold an individual’s liberties is a great power. The moral implications to punishment affect many policies in the criminal justice system, those that make policy and all of us under its authority.