The death penalty, also referred to as capital punishment, is the process whereby a state government orders a sentence of death for a person found guilty of a particular set of criminal offenses. In the United States, the primary capital crime is first-degree murder with an additional aggravating factor, usually called a “special circumstance” (e.g., murder of a law enforcement officer). Capital punishment is a complex process that includes a criminal charge, an involved legal process, sentencing, special “death row” prison housing, post-conviction appeals, and the ultimate execution of the defendant. Persons sentenced to death are called condemned. Execution refers specifically to the process in which the defendant is killed.
Capital punishment has been practiced throughout human history, with considerable variation across eras and regions. In the last 50 years, the use of capital punishment has declined across the globe, and there are relatively few countries that use it regularly as a form of punishment, most notably China. Some countries have abolished the death penalty completely, such as all member states of the European Union. Most other countries have seen a decline in its use. For instance, only 31 out of 50 states in the United States currently have death penalty statutes (there are also federal death penalty statutes, which are rarely used). The other 19 U.S. states are referred to as “abolitionist.”
The “modern era” of capital punishment in the United States was spurred by two important Supreme Court cases. The Furman v. Georgia (1972) decision ruled that arbitrariness in the application of the death penalty deemed its use unconstitutional. The reversal of that ruling four years later in Gregg v. Georgia (1976) reestablished the death penalty in America, and experts refer to the modern era as 1976 to the present.
Disciplinary segregation is a punishment that prison officials impose in response to inmate violations of prison rules such as assaulting another inmate or disrespecting an officer. Disciplinary segregation is distinct from other types of restrictive housing (e.g., supermax confinement, administrative segregation), but it is the most commonly used form of restrictive housing in most states. Inmates housed in disciplinary segregation typically spend 23 hours a day in a cell, with limited interaction with other inmates or prison staff. Inmates’ access to other privileges such as recreation, programming, and visitation is also restricted during their time in disciplinary segregation.
Prison officials have the discretion to place inmates found guilty of violations of the inmate rules of conduct in disciplinary segregation, and indeed, segregation is a common response to rule violations. It is expected that confinement in disciplinary segregation will deter inmates’ subsequent rule breaking, but some scholars argue that confinement in disciplinary segregation amplifies inmates’ misbehavior via labeling or by stimulating mental health problems that ultimately result in problem behaviors (e.g., rule violations). Despite these assertions, there is little evidence regarding the impact of disciplinary segregation on inmates’ behavior or mental health. Precise estimates of the extent of the inmate population exposed to disciplinary segregation (and their level of exposure), and studies of the factors that influence prison officials’ decision to place inmates in disciplinary segregation are also limited. The frequency with which disciplinary segregation is used, its greater cost compared to general population confinement, and calls for the equitable and effective use of restrictive housing in prisons by civil rights advocates, the U.S. Congress, and former President Obama underscore the need for further research on the topic.
Lynne Haney and Lili Dao
In many respects, gender has been missing from the enormous literature on the form and focus of state systems of punishment. This is true in both the historical accounts on shifts in penal practices and the scholarship on the contemporary emergence of mass incarceration. Gender is absent as a category of analysis and as an explanatory variable in these scholarly debates. At the same time, while there is a large literature on women in the criminal justice and penal systems, it rarely addresses broader questions of how and why the penal system has grown in size, deepened in scope, and broadened in reach over the last few decades.
There have been three major approaches to the study of gender and punishment. The first inserted women into accounts of the criminal justice and penal systems, which had historically concentrated on male offenders. Some of this early work used a historical lens to analyze shifts in women’s confinement practices, particularly the evolution of the reformatory in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Influenced by debates in feminist legal theory about sameness and difference, one major line of inquiry sought to determine whether women were treated more leniently than men, particularly with regard to sentencing. A second approach, gaining momentum in the 2000s, shifted the focus from gender differences in outcomes to the gendered dynamics of penal control. More qualitative in nature, this scholarship conceptualized gender as a process that was both transformed and harnessed in penal institutions. Drawing on a broader movement in gender studies, this work focused less on women per se than on how gender was socially constituted. The third and final approach takes seriously the call of critical legal scholars of race and gender to examine the intersections of disadvantage. While academic analyses of intersectionality came to the fore in the 1990s, this perspective made few inroads into penology and criminology until relatively recently. Recent work on the intersection of racialization, masculinity and punishment, and the sexual politics of the prison point to promising new directions that transcend common understandings of criminalization and punishment.
Numerous philosophical theories purport to justify a system of legal punishment. It is doubtful, however, that any of them successfully answer these three questions: Why punish? Whom to punish? How much to punish? Straightforward retributive theories, which justify punishment by looking back at the wrongful harm done by an offender, don’t adequately answer the question of why the offender should be harmed in return for harm done. More sophisticated retributive theories construe punishment as equalizing an unfair advantage taken by an offender. Such theories have difficulty with the question of how much to punish. Consent theories view offenders as willing punishment onto themselves by their voluntary acts. The various versions of this theory all fail to answer one or more of the three questions: why, whom, and how much. Rights forfeiture theories give a question-begging answer to the “why” question and don’t answer the question of how much. Consequentialist theories, which justify punishment by looking forward to results such as deterrence and incapacitation, have difficulties with whom to punish and how much. Arguably, punishing an innocent person who is believed to be guilty could deter potential offenders, and a serious offense might be deterred by a less severe punishment than a minor offense. Some philosophers see insurmountable problems for strictly backward-looking theories that appeal to guilt of the offender and for strictly forward-looking theories that appeal to future consequences. The solution, then, could be a theory that appeals to future results to provide a reason for punishing, but looks back at harm done by the offender to answer the question of whom to punish and how much. However, without a unifying rationale for taking these different approaches to these particular issues, such a mixed theory would be ad hoc if not incoherent.
In recent decades, philosophers have offered several approaches that might avoid the pitfalls described above by providing a unified rationale for punishment that is both backward and forward looking. Self-defense theories hold that it is rational and justifiable for the state to threaten punishment in order to defend citizens against offenses. They then move by various strategies from the justifiability of the threat to the justifiability of punishment. Forced choice theories justify punishment as a way of distributing necessary harm to the guilty rather than the innocent. Censure theories attempt to justify punishment as the state’s means of expressing disapproval of offenses against the law. Each of these theories faces difficulties, but proponents might judge that even though they haven’t yet been able to adequately state the justification of punishment, their theory is on the right track. Others view the difficulties faced by all theories and boldly conclude that punishment is not justifiable. There is little support for rehabilitation as an alternative to punishment. The practices associated with restorative justice, although not directly aimed at punishment, typically involve punishment, so they still require a justification for punishment. Whether a system of restitution could take the place of a system of punishment is problematic. The situation is made even more troublesome by the fact that the theories that have been surveyed aim to justify punishment in a society with a just political structure and laws. Even if such a theory succeeds, it is far from clear that it would justify punishment in a society where many of those who are harmed by punishment have also been victims of injustice.