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442: Light Punishment

What crime do you think is punished too lightly?

Full episode script

Just about any US based textbook will tell you that in general, punishment has five recognized purposes: deterrence, incapacitation, rehabilitation, retribution, and restitution. Or, put a different way, the whole point of legal punishment is to scare the defendant and the public, to remove the criminal from society, to help the criminal reintegrate to society in a more constructive way, to prevent those that feel wronged from further breaking the social contract to punish the defendant on their own, and to fix damage that may have been done by the crime, to the extent possible.

That’s a lot of ground to be covered for one action or reaction to something that breaks the social contract. And perhaps naturally, because everyone expects or thinks that punishment will do what they expect, there are mismatches of what someone believes punishment should be for a particular high crime or misdemeanor, and what the actual punishment metered out might be.

Where this gets really interesting is in the research that’s coming out of the Yale Parenting Center, where they are finding that straight-up negative punishment can have the inverse impact of increasing the likelihood of the behavior you’re trying to eliminate. Instead, their research has found that a much, much more effective way of changing behavior is to reinforce the positive parts of the behavior.

It seems very simplistic when talking about crime and punishment, but given that the most extreme punishments that exist in the US prison system – supermax isolation where 23 hours per day are spent in total isolation from other humans – is also the system that creates the most difficulty in reintegrating into society — it might be worth looking at how we mete out punishment — too light or too heavy — a little differently.

This script may vary from the actual episode transcript.