Thursday, October 21, 2010


I find it interesting that the concept of punishment has become so fluid in our society today. It certainly appears that the standards that we use to judge what punishment is appropriate in public, in private, and in the judiciary system are both inconsistent and arbitrary.

We decry the lack of discipline in the current generation of children growing up (as each generation before us has), each of us often finding the behavior of some other family's offspring to be rude, noisy, or obnoxious as we are trying to eat a meal or shop in a grocery store. We long for such parents to take control of their progeny and keep such intrusive behavior under control. In spite of this desire not to be disturbed by childish behavior by those young enough to be legitimately guilty of it (though we seem to accept such behavior from adults), we nevertheless closely scrutinize any discipline that such parents meet out for the commission of of offenses.

While certainly no one wants to see a child beaten in public or in private, should a parent correct a wayward offspring with a smack on the butt at the 'Shop Mart', a concerned citizen will contact 911 about child abuse. When the police respond (as indeed they must), the punishment-meriting behavior of the child will be quickly forgotten and the parent will instead quickly find themselves attempting to prove the legitimacy and innocents of their behavior. We wring our hands over the loss of learning caused by the lack of discipline in our classrooms, but tie the hands of teachers and administrators attempting punishment to enforce rules on what can sometimes be an unruly bunch. We likewise seem to believe that handing a Tylenol to a fellow student is as deplorable as handing them a knife (even a butter knife) and deserving of identical punishment. We clearly enunciate a 'zero tolerance policy' for offenses committed by students, but have no punishment at all for committing the offense of running those same youth through the education system without actually educating them.

When it comes to punishment however, no one exceeds the government for inconsistency. Punishment seems to not only be the accepted outcome, but exceptional punishment seems to be the rule where some of its bureaucracies are concerned. Who that has run afoul of the IRS has not discovered that the penalties and interest on delinquent taxes can be far more onerous than the original tax bill itself. Miss a deadline on a piece of paperwork or fail to pay every dollar that the IRS demands, and the taxpayer will quickly find themselves under a mountain of debt and the threat of punishment that make the terms 'loan-sharking' and 'leg-breaking' quickly come to mind. While legal limits have been imposed on the banking system as to the interest and penalties that can be assessed on the consumer, no such protection exists for the same consumer when it comes to their government.

Speaking of government, nowhere is this schizophrenic behavior more evident than in our judicial system. Commit a white collar crime of staggering proportions out of sheer greed and you are likely to serve time in much more congenial surroundings than someone who commits a crime to feed a family. Steal couple of thousand dollars and you will likely receive a far heavier sentence than someone who steals millions. Kill a fellow citizen and you might likely receive a sentence lighter than either. Many drug offenses carry mandatory minimum punishments, but child molestation (certainly a more egregious offense) in most cases does not. 

As far as the ultimate punishment of the death penalty is concerned, we have made the process so convoluted that the offender is equally likely to die of natural causes during the process than from the retribution of society. Even if the offender finally reaches that day of days, the concern then becomes the method of this final judgment. Apparently we are more concerned with the cruel method of killing a killer than with the method that the killer himself used. We even go to the extent of swabbing the arm and sterilizing the needles of a person we are about to execute through lethal injection. (Apparently we are concerned with possible infection of the prisoner in their final moments of life.)

Since we appear to be at heart an irrational society where it comes to the subject of punitive correction, I expect that there is no easy answer to the question at hand. It is sometimes necessary however, to at least shine a light on the impractical and almost lunatic standards that we impose and support when it come to punishment.


Roland Hansen said...

Mi amigo, Tim,
You have hit upon a very controversial nerve indeed. We allegedly desire to provide judges with some flexibility in determining how justice should be meted out in many cases, but in other situations, there are mandatory sentences which totally tie the hands of the judges. Then, there are the disparities in various outcomes as you have pointed out so poignantly.
The IRS and other governmental agencies with quasi-judicial powers are another animal altogether, one that should be captured, reigned in, and imprisoned itself! Those are way too far out of control and often overstep the bounds of justice properly administered. Trying to receive and obtain justice from a governmental agency is like having an enjoyable delicious dinner with impacted wisdom teeth.

Tim Higgins said...


We desire for those who offend to be punished, but we know not how. We desire those who are guilty to be shown justice, but cannot discover what that is. We desire the innocent to be protected, but often do not know how.

I had (and have) no answers, only questions; but it seems to me that from time to time someone must ask them. This time it just turned out to be me.