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Article

Monica M. Gerber

Why do people support the harsh punishment of criminal offenders? Understanding public punitiveness is relevant because punitive measures have been increasing worldwide since the year 2000, while public perceptions are an important factor driving penal policies. These punitive trends have taken place even though crime rates have generally not increased and even decreased in many parts of the world. Punitive attitudes—understood here as general support for the application of harsh sentences to criminal offenders—have been captured measuring people’s beliefs about specific sanctions and their intensity, the support for specific sentencing policies, and the evaluation of the penal system, among others. Research on the factors explaining public punitiveness can be broadly classified into two categories: utilitarian and retributive perspectives. According to the utilitarian perspective, punishment is a means to reduce future crime and control the behavior of offenders, usually through deterrence and incapacitation. From this perspective, punitiveness should be driven by concerns about high crime rates, fear of crime, and victimization experiences. From a retributive perspective, punishment serves a symbolic function by retaliating a wrong more than preventing future crimes. Two retributive and symbolic functions of punishment are discussed in the literature: On the one hand, it is argued that punishment helps clarify moral and normative boundaries; on the other hand, punishment can also help clarify status boundaries and maintain dominant groups’ power. Other factors found to influence people’s attitudes are political ideology (e.g., right-wing authoritarianism and social dominance orientation), situational antecedents (e.g., the presence of a social threat or specific characteristics of victim and offender), and the media.

Article

Paul Kaplan

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.

Article

Anne-Marie Cusac

Beginning in the mid-1970s, enormous changes governed U.S. punishment of criminal offenses, leading to harsher laws and longer prison terms than convicts in earlier decades served for the same offenses. The stark policy shift resulted in soaring prison populations that are disproportionate compared with most Western nations. The United States, with 5% of the world population, has more than 20% of the world’s prisoners. Its prison population rose 700% from 1970 to 2005. Today, one in 34 adults is under correctional control. The rates are disproportionate for minorities, especially less-educated black men (Lee, 2015; Pew, 2007, 2014; U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, 2012). Shifts in physical treatment of prisoners accompanied the population boom. Jails and prisons adopted control technologies that would likely have been considered inappropriate and inhumane decades earlier. These included the stun belt and the restraint chair, devices that can cause considerable pain. These also included extensive use of solitary confinement in Supermax prisons, an echo of a method used in 18th- and 19th -century American penitentiaries and discarded because of the dangers it posed to inmate mental health. And, following the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, treatment in U.S. prisons seemed to echo overseas in abuse of foreign prisoners in American hands. The Bush administration attempted to declare physical coercion as legal during interrogations, in apparent violation of the Geneva Conventions (Shane, Johnston, & Risen, 2007). What caused such a shift? Much of the change appears to be cultural in nature, connected strongly to forces such as politics, religion, pervasive beliefs about evil and children, popular culture, and economic realities. This also means that American punishment is historically more influenced by such cultural forces than by more seemingly related phenomena such as research on effective punishments, prisoner experience, or crime statistics. That American cultural trends strongly influence American punishment also means that American daily lives respond to shifts in punitiveness. Such evidence of American punishment trends appear in popular television shows and treatment of children.