Liberal Arts and Management Program | The Ethics and Economics of Mass Punishment
L416 | 13824 | Richard Lippke


During the last forty years, the United States has quintupled the
size of its prison population. We invest over $100 billion annually
in our criminal justice system. For this we get one of the highest
per capita rates of imprisonment in the world and continued high
rates of criminal offending, especially violent offending. Viewed as
a business, the criminal justice system appears an expensive and
none-too-successful enterprise. This seminar will begin with an
investigation of how we got into this predicament. What factors
(cultural, political, and legal) led to the incarceration boom and
what factors sustain it? We will consider how attitudes toward crime
and offenders have changed. We will also examine how those changes
affect our commitment to procedural fairness in the treatment of
individuals charged with crimes and the kinds of penal sanctions
inflicted upon them. In the course of doing so, we will discuss
economic defenses of harsh criminal sanctions and diluted procedures
for determining guilt and innocence. We will also examine the impact
of imprisonment on the life-prospects of offenders, many of whom
come from socially deprived backgrounds. This will lead us into
questions about whether and to what extent our criminal justice
policies are logical extensions of other forms of social exclusion
of individuals from meaningful and productive lives. We will also
discuss the feasibility of turning punishment over to private prison
providers and concerns about the growth of vested economic interests
in expanded punishment. As we consider all of these issues, we will
contrast our criminal justice policies with those found in other
industrialized societies. Societies with less inequality and more
generous welfare provisions also tend to have considerably lower
incarceration rates. We will examine whether and to what extent
there is a link between efforts to minimize the disparities among
individuals’ life-prospects and more humane criminal justice
policies. Course participants will write a series of short papers
and a longer research paper.