Philosophy in Prison: Rethinking Crime and Punishment

“Philosophy in Prison” is a series of posts generated for the APA Blog by Professor Gabriel Rockhill’s philosophy course, “Class, Race and Social Transformation,” which took place in the Spring semester of 2017 at Graterford Prison in Pennsylvania. This post is the fifth of six.  You can see more posts from the series here.

This essay is a dialogue with four different perspectives on the topic of crime and punishment. It starts with a general overview, which is followed by an extended conversation about juveniles who receive life sentences. It concludes with a consideration of the possibility of applying sentencing reforms to young adults as well as juveniles since neuroscience has found that the brain still develops until the mid-20s.

Although this post focuses on the specific issue of punishing juveniles and young adults with life sentences, particularly in the state of Pennsylvania, it raises a number of broader issues about crime and punishment. For instance, it asks whether punishment for life with no possibility of rehabilitation is itself a crime, particularly in the case of young people who are still growing up. It also raises the question of the extent to which the prison industrial complex perpetuates these forms of punishment in a systemic fashion, thereby acting as a form of criminality rather than a bulwark against it. Finally, there is a deep concern throughout the post with the problem of responsibility and what it means for a commonwealth to hold irrational young adults accountable while completely exonerating a system that punishes them for life.


Who Are the Real Criminals?

W. P. and K. H.

What exactly is crime and punishment? In general, crime is a serious offense against public law (i.e. a burglary, arson, murder, etc.), and punishment is a penalty imposed on an offender, which can range from fines to life imprisonment or even, in certain cases, a death sentence. The most heinous crime is homicide, whose punishment is often life without parole.

In the state of Pennsylvania, juveniles convicted of first-degree murder have received a sentence of life without parole due to a law that should only apply to adults. However, because of a 2013 Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision rendering such sentences unconstitutional when applied to juveniles, a window of opportunity is opening for this particular group, which may inadvertently help others as well.

Now Pennsylvania is considered a commonwealth, but what does that mean? In On the Republic, Cicero defines a commonwealth as “the wealth and welfare of the people,” and he goes on to state that people are a “multitude bound together by mutual recognition of rights and a mutual co-operation for the common good.” Therefore, one could say that if justice is absent from such a society, then the “multitude” is not “bound together,” and a commonwealth does not exist.

Where is the justice when people are sentenced to a protracted death by incarceration? The law does not uphold the common good, for if it did then the commonwealth would have to recognize some level of culpability in creating criminality, and rehabilitation, especially for wayward juveniles, should still be considered a viable option. Thus, if Pennsylvania is not a commonwealth, then who are the laws designed to protect? I would venture to say that their primary intention is to protect the upper class since, in most cases, they are the ones who create the laws. In this case, criminality becomes a form of rebellion against the legitimacy of the plutocratic republic. When people are incarcerated in Pennsylvania, they are given a prison number to commodify them, which institutes a refurbished form of slavery. It makes you think about who the real criminals are.


The Robbery of the Prison Industrial Complex

W. H.

What would you think if you were told that there is a nation that is sentencing its children to death by incarceration? What would you think about a country that sentences its kids to death row for a moment of bad judgment, a poor decision, or an irrational and despicable act?

In understanding that children are going to do outrageous things just because they don’t always realize the consequences of their actions, we tend to chalk these things up to their youth. Science has proven, in fact, that the brain is not fully developed until one reaches their mid-twenties. Therefore, it is logical to conclude that these underdeveloped brains do not have the full ability to reason. Yet, here in the United States, specifically Pennsylvania, we are legally sentencing our children to death by incarceration, or even death row, if they are found guilty of felony homicide.

While not condoning the acts of these individuals, we must ask ourselves what progressive country can look at itself in the mirror and say that a child who commits a heinous crime, such as murder, has no redemptive qualities and should be locked away for the rest of their life. In good conscience, we can say that it is not ethical to punish a child for their entire life for one bad act. In America, we have rules defining responsibility, such as the guideline that a person cannot vote until they are 18. How is it that a person is deemed not responsible enough to vote before this age, yet fully responsible to be sentenced to die for committing a criminal act?

So, why is it that in a time when there are so many grey areas, since nothing is black and white, there is a straight line drawn between crime and punishment? For the juvenile lifer, there is a system that is driving their fate and their sentence. The Prison Industrial Complex has an intricate political investment in the long-term containment of their bodies. These contained bodies represent years of outside financial support from family and friends. The Prison Industrial Complex has found a way to extract wealth from those who have the least, and to extract said wealth for a very long time, as it robs juveniles of their prime years, and robs their families of their finances. That is a crime that should be punished!


Punishing Children

B. W.

Cruel and unusual punishment of children is the result of the March 26, 2013 ruling handed down by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in the case of Commonwealth v. Batts. It is unconstitutional, according to the eighth amendment, because it sentences juveniles to a mandatory life sentence for first-degree murder even though the offenders were under the age of 18 at the time of the offense. As a result, 518 prisoners, who were children at the time of the crime are now being resentenced.

A juvenile can only be sentenced to life without parole after expert testimony (psychologists, psychiatrists, etc.) confirms that a juvenile is irredeemably corrupt, and permanently incorrigible (factors which are difficult to establish). One very interesting point that needs to be mentioned is that there’s no sentencing statute in place to render a life sentence prior to the passing of 2012 HB 850. This House Bill was not made retroactive, and it was intended only to serve as a sentencing guideline for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder as follows: an offender age 14 or under will get 25-to-life, and those who were 15 to 17 years old will get 35-to-life. Nonetheless, the sentences were supposed to be individualized sentences, not standardized for the sake of simplicity and uniformity. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia courts have interpreted this to mean that life will be applied to the back end of each juvenile lifer’s sentence, which in other words means a lifetime on parole (if it’s even granted). A third circuit judge, Judge Savage, has spoken directly on this issue after noting that the Philadelphia District Attorney hasn’t been following this blueprint. Only time will tell whether anything will be done about it. Yet, it seems that unless those who are affected by these changes are willing to speak up and fight for what is just and right, then this issue will most likely get squashed quietly, and swept under the rug.


What Is the Rationale for Punishing Irrational Children?

R. B.

The National Institute of Health conducted a study on brain development and found that the region of the brain that controls risky behavior continues to develop until a person is 25 years old. Therefore, it raises some questions: how do we, as a society, define a juvenile, and what should be the level of culpability for a juvenile who commits a crime but doesn’t have the fully rational capabilities of an adult?

Due to U.S. Supreme Court decisions such as Miller v. Alabama (2012) and Montgomery v. Louisiana (2016), a juvenile cannot be sentenced to life without parole, and it is retroactive, meaning it applies to all juvenile cases where they previously received this unconstitutional sentence. However, the legislature and courts need to expand their scope beyond juvenile sentences of life without parole because of emerging neuroscience which states that brains are still developing into the mid-20s. What happens, then, to the offenders who are between the ages of 18-24? If they don’t have fully rational brains, then how can one expect to hold them completely accountable for irrational actions? In addition, are sentences of life without parole unconstitutional when applied to these “young adults” who were convicted of murder?

This is why I believe a complete overhaul of sentencing schemes must occur. Right now there is nothing to stop a judge from stacking sentences in a consecutive manner which can add up to a de facto life sentence for these “young adults.” The “tough on crime” era is gradually dying as progressive Millennials enter the political arena, which should entail a revision of draconian sentencing laws (mandatory sentences, 3-strike laws, etc.) since there is no definitive proof that increased incarceration lowers the crime rate. Robbing juveniles and “young adults” of the chance to reform and reenter society during their prime years just seems like a grave injustice when one should have the basic rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

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