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May 23, 2021

More notable new essays in Brennan Center's "Punitive Excess" series

I highlighted here last month a new essay series assembled by the Brennan Center for Justice, titled "Punitive Excess," in which "writers highlight how our nation has prioritized excess punishment over more supportive and less traumatic ways of dealing with social harm."  The first three essays in the series were linked in this prior post, and now I see that these three additional essays have been added to the series:

May 23, 2021 at 07:44 AM | Permalink


I have long traced America's penchant for excessive punishment back to Puritanical Christian thought from the 17th century. The origin is from the Old Testament of the Bible, which tells stories of a God who punishes Christians who do bad things and fail to follow his laws. Our Puritanical ancestors brought this thinking with them to Jamestown and the colonization of the United States. Interestingly, American thought on punishment for crimes has not adopted the thinking of the New Testament, which describes a loving and forgiving God. It is this Old Testament thinking that explains at the most basic level why American punishments for crimes are so much more severe than those of our First World peer countries. To achieve positive and supportive changes, our Government will first have to recognize and admit that most of our current punishments are dramatically excessive, and that if we want different outcomes in our system, we have to adopt shorter, lesser punishments. One of my friends here in Lexington helped found a Veteran's Treatment Court here. While working on that project, he travelled to Buffalo, New York, where the first Veteran's Treatment Court was founded. One thing that surprised him is that for all but the most serious of probation violations in that program, the defendants got just 6 days in jail, before being released back to the program and their families and jobs. They call it the "quick dip", so they don't completely revoke probation and send people to prison to serve the entire sentence. This approach should be adopted throughout the entire criminal justice system. The "all or nothing" approach to probation violations doesn't make sense. The other thing the program does is give the defendant a mentor, who is himself a combat veteran, to call, meet and talk with about his issues and problems. Wouldn't it make sense to give drug dealers who are serving probation or parole (or even Federal Supervised Release) a mentor who is a successfully reformed former drug dealer, who has "gone straight" to talk to as he works to lead a non-criminal life?

Posted by: Jim Gormley | May 23, 2021 11:12:11 AM

"The origin is from the Old Testament of the Bible, which tells stories of a God who punishes Christians who do bad things and fail to follow his laws."

Seems arbitrary of him to punish people who only arose during the New Testament era. I'm sorry; it's a bit of a amusing was to phrase it.

I think history suggests a certain mixture.

Before the modern prison state, particularly, society probably in many cases spent less time punishing crime, there being less of a state to do so. Many wrongdoers had more ways to avoid capture, including by fleeing the immediate jurisdiction.

Posted by: Joe | May 23, 2021 12:55:11 PM

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