Zeitgeist of the Heart – Sentencing and Rehabilitation

By now many of you have heard about the ruckus involving a Standford student convicted of raping an unconscious woman.  The judge issued a fairly lenient sentence (as lenient as any sentence can be when one is required to register as a sex offender) and many are calling for both his head and the rapist’s head.  The reasoning for the “light” sentence is that the convicted had no prior criminal record and was deemed to be with good chances of rehabilitation in prison.  This logic combined with the outcry of many circles is what interests me.  If prison is intended to be a tool of rehabilitation, then the system must be celebrated when it is successful.  This would dictate that sentences be made proportional to the odds of successful conversion from criminal behavior to prosocial behavior.  However, we are left in a world of bloodlust as the very people that decry the prison system are outraged that its power was not used in complete force with respect to the convicted.  After all, it’s okay to empathize with the disadvantaged that wind up in the system, but for those in which it is agreeable to pile on crucifixion, it must be done so with great gusto.

Part of the joy in writing for me is exposing the hypocrisy under which many operate.  The same people that propagate concerns of a capitalist-prison system are the ones crying out for punishments that would never satisfy them in this particular instance.  Their empathy is directed in contradictory fashion, singling out those in their “in-group” for reduced sentences and demanding increasingly destructive forms of punishment for those in their “out-group.”  I am not justifying the actions of the convicted, far from it.  What I am pointing out is that those – in general – that are calling for blood are the very same people that view prison as a tool for rehabilitation rather than punishment.  They champion the use of prisons as an ultimately tool for possible rehabilitation rather than as punitive tools that exist solely to inflict more pain.  However, this all goes to hell when they are presented with someone that is deemed to be universally reviled or otherwise in everyone’s out-group.

You cannot have it both ways.  Either prisons serve primarily to rehabilitate or they serve primarily to punish.  It is okay for people to call for blood, but it is not okay to call for blood in one breath and one instance and to call for leniency in another for another individual.  Yes, punishments should fit crimes.  However, we must be aware of our own internal biases when determining whether our desires are clouded.  If the rapist in question returns to a productive state in society and does no further harm, then the sentence was just, as rehabilitation was reached and the contribution to society was maximized.  It is the role of the courts to determine this risk and not public opinion. The mob is a faulty compass for what is best objectively, even though it checks the pulse of what is in vogue subjectively.  Resist the zeitgeist of the heart.

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