Professor questions punishment

REBECCA WHITE, Evergreen reporter

A WSU philosophy professor spoke on the ethical implications of punishment in the criminal justice system using examples in the WSU common reading book, “Just Mercy,” Feb. 9 at the CUE.

“Our hope is that over the course of this year, our campus community has a chance to explore issues of social and criminal justice from a variety of different kinds of discoveries and help us illuminate how complex topics really require complex thinking from us,” said Karen Weathermon, co-director of the WSU Common Reading Program.

According to the Bureau of Justice statistics, the total number of adults in correctional facilities rose from 2 million in 1980 to over 6 million in 2013. Matt Stichter, a WSU associate professor of philosophy, said in his presentation that the United States had no minimum age for prosecuting children and minors. Property and non-violent crimes can result in life imprisonment.

Even after offenders complete their sentence and are released, they have difficulty receiving public assistance and it is difficult for them to get a job, which Stichter said is not part of their sentence.

“With all this going on it seems we’re doing more harm than good,” said Stichter. “If they had problems before, they’re really going to have problems when they get out.”

Punishment is usually seen as causing some harm, something that normally is seen as objectable by most people, Stichter said. Introducing the institution of punishment allows people to break those rules and cause suffering to others if they have broken the rules of society.

One objection to ethical theories of punishment is the assumption that the rules of punishment are fair. In reality, Stichter says, laws often benefit those in power and are oppressive to those who have been marginalized or are in poverty.

An example he gives is the penalties for crack and cocaine possession.

Crack possession receives heavier penalties then cocaine possession, even though they are chemically similar.

Stichter said that crack is cheaper and used by lower income people while cocaine is much more expensive and is usually used by the rich and has much lower penalties.

“Maybe punishment isn’t justified if the rules aren’t fair,” Stichter said, “If they’re really engaging in a form of exploitation, unfairness of laws takes away justification of punishment for breaking them. The only way to get punishment justified is to fix the law so that it is fair.”

Stichter refers to several cases in the common reading book, “Just Mercy,” where people who are impoverished are assigned public defenders who have no motivation to defend them and are not getting fair trials.

“We think we have these punishments that we made to fit the crime, but what about all the abuses that go on in prison that are perpetuated by the guards, that’s not part of their sentence,” Stichter said.

Another example from the book was Trina Garnett, a 14-year-old girl who accidentally burned a house down, killing two people. Garnett suffered emotional and physical abuse as a child and was not competent enough to stand trial. Her public defender did not try to file a motion of incompetence or challenge her being charged as an adult.

While in prison, she was raped by a correctional officer and she attempted to file a suit against him and was denied because she was in prison for murder. Stichter said that like Trina, many people are sentenced to life imprisonment, but that does not mean they deserve the suffering and abuse that often goes with that.

Reporting by Rebecca White