Over the past several years, the case of Michael Vick has registered a continual and deep discomfort with a lot of how we talk about (and practice) crime and punishment, and the disjuncture between the moral justification of punishment and the way it is actually operationalized in our society. As Vick is enjoying a successful year in the NFL, there are still those who are outraged that he is even allowed to play in the NFL — that he is permitted to return post-punishment with seemingly no permanent disabilities.
I was in the let Vick play camp well before the President registered his agreement on the subject, and I think that point is pretty clear. I also still maintain that, gravity of Vick’s crime notwithstanding, there was a deep loss of perspective in those who labeled it a crime against humanity.
But there’s a bigger point here worth exploring, and it goes into the psychology of punishment and how we go about rationalizing the state-inflicted violence that is the penal system.
When I say state-inflicted violence, I don’t mean it as a judgment. Sometimes violence is acceptable — in self-defense, in just wars — and incarceration (the coercive locking-away of a person under pain of severe injury or even death if he tries to leave) as punishment for crime is one of those cases. But violence needs justification, and so, in order to rationalize punishment, we have to tell ourselves that the person is a bad person. Which of course, in a way, he is — people who drown dogs or beat women or rob banks are bad people. But only so much so. The problem is that whereas criminal penalties are generally temporally limited (e.g., a jail sentence of two years), moral judgments have no such borders. Having concluded that someone is a bad person is the warrant that justifies the incarceration, but it does not fade away upon their release. We find, post-release, that our thirst for retribution hasn’t been quenched. After all, there is a bad guy out there, living his life freely, successful, even happy. There is a disjuncture between the formalized, limited, moral judgment of incarceration, and the broader narrative of wrongfulness that sustains our ability to render that judgment under law — a narrative that enjoys no such bounds or constraints, a narrative that, may, fundamentally, be incompatible with any sentence for felons other than life without parole.
Philosophically speaking, this is a problem for retributiivist accounts of criminal punishment. But practically speaking, it’s an even bigger problem for successfully reintegrating felons back into the mainstream of American life. Both in absolute and per capita terms, the US has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. It is both social and moral folly to permanently write off our entire population of convicts as irredeemable (which, in effect, is what we have done ever since we officially abandoned rehabilitation as a goal of incarceration). Frankly, if we don’t think anyone will successfully turn away from a life of crime — and we consider it an injustice upon their victims when they do and meet with success in their new lives — then our criminal justice system is a farce. Why do we bother letting folks out of prison in the first place, if we think they’re doomed to fail and are aggrieved when they don’t accommodate?
Needless to say, I’m not endorsing mandatory life sentences. I’m endorsing a broader shift in how we think about criminals — one that demands considerably more agility than “they are bad people”. The narratives by which we justify imposing punishment on the offender have to include an ending through which we impose an obligation on society to forgive once the punishment is included. Our stories can’t end with the bad man. They must contain a restorative element, or they will fail.