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Richmond and the purposes of punishment

In a recent blog posting on The Bay Area, Gerry Shih notes that the US Supreme Court’s decisions in Graham and Sullivan may bear on the outcome of a Richmond, California, case involving the brutal rape of a 15-year-old high school student.

The Richmond case presents a useful opportunity to think about the nature of punishment and the importance of imposing criminal sentences that are consistent with the principles of fairness and justice that underlie our system. Punishment should not be an exercise in arbitrariness – the punishments our system imposes should be based on thoughtful reflection and rational analysis.

Traditionally, there are two main justifications for imposing punishment upon criminal wrongdoers: desert (or retribution) and utility. The idea behind desert is that wrongdoers deserve to be held morally accountable for their actions and that punishment should be proportional to the wrongdoing. In imposing a punishment based solely on desert, one need not be concerned with whether the punishment is designed to accomplish any other utilitarian objectives – the punishment is being imposed simply because it is deserved.

The idea behind the utilitarian purposes of punishment is that punishment is justified only if it accomplishes some other objective, such as crime control. Deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation are all said to be valid utilitarian bases for punishment. In imposing a punishment based solely on utilitarian concerns, one need not be concerned with whether the punishment is otherwise morally justified – the only criterion is that the punishment accomplish the end being sought.

Of the six defendants, five face life in prison if they are convicted of the charges and enhancements. Whether this punishment is justified depends entirely on your view of the purposes of punishment. If you believe that punishments have to be morally justifiable, then the relevant question is whether these defendants deserve to be imprisoned for the rest of their lives for what they are accused of doing. If you believe that punishments should serve other objectives, then the relevant question is whether imposition of a life sentence will in fact serve any of those objectives, such as deterrence, rehabilitation or crime control. It’s not an either/or proposition – punishments can be based on both normative and utilitarian values. The key point, however, is that punishments should be principled, which means that when you impose a sentence on someone you should know why you’re doing it.

It is way too early in the Richmond case to tell whether any of these defendants will be convicted, and if so, what the evidence will reveal. Thus, it’s too early to undertake a reasoned analysis of what kind of punishment might ultimately be justified. But it’s never too early to start asking the relevant questions.

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