Monday, March 30, 2015

The Punishment Can't Fit the Crime


Hal Pepinsky,, “peacemaking” at

March 30, 2015


                I have been struck by a wave of proposals in recent weeks to reduce the length, and to drop mandatory minima altogether for federal crimes, to offset the world-leading terms of incarceration US courts impose.  Indeed, length of incarceration is the major distinguishing factor in accounting for what we now call “mass incarceration.”  Yesterday, Scottish criminologist Fergus McNeill sent a proposal to mitigate length of sentence in the UK ( ), inviting response.

                I was moved to look back to a chapter I drafted in a book Paul Jesilow and I first published just 30 years ago, Myths That Cause Crime.  Paul and I donated the images to the American Society of Criminology’s Critical Criminology Division (a free download, thanks to Ken Mentor, at .  Paul drafted the foundational chapters in the book that laid out that laid out the double standard we apply to white-collar crime to street crime, and the biases in theory, measurement, and stereotypes that follows.

                My attention was drawn back to Myth 9 (of 10): “The Punishment Can Fit the Crime.”  It is a short read (pp. 116-126), but to me on re-reading, it more sharply and succinctly accounts for why I abandoned the idea of trying to make punishment work than in all the years I have criticized returning violence with violence since: the inherent absurdity of making the punishment fit the crime, and of claims to deterrent effects of widespread, systematic punishment.  If punishment works, it certainly can’t be because the punishment fits the crime, or because deterrence is working more than episodically, in spite of the punishment itself.  To those who say offenders have to have consequences because nothing works better than punishment, I ask:  Who’s utopian?  Who places blind faith above reason?  Love and peace, hal


A note:  With thanks to Ken Mentor for putting them on the web, I have also donated several other volumes to .  Besides Myths That Cause Crime under the “Articles” tab, they include the late Little Rock Reed’s The American Indian in the White Man’s Prison (an outstanding collection of writings by Native North American prisoners, 1993), and A Criminologist’s Quest for Peace (2001; chap. 1, “Living Criminological with Naked Emperors,” is my critique of COMPSTAT, for instance), where I weave a series of previously published works together), and my first book Crime and Conflict: A Study of Law and Society (1976; essentially an argument for the limits of the rule of law).  All are free downloads, for any use including in the classroom.  L&p

1 comment:

  1. ps: Also a free download at Peacemaking: Reflections of a Radical Criminologist (2006, my last book): . l&p hal