Harsh Justice: Criminal Punishment and the Widening Divide between America and Europe

Harsh Justice: Criminal Punishment and the Widening Divide between America and Europe

Harsh Justice: Criminal Punishment and the Widening Divide between America and Europe

Harsh Justice: Criminal Punishment and the Widening Divide between America and Europe


Why is American punishment so cruel? While in continental Europe great efforts are made to guarantee that prisoners are treated humanely, in America sentences have gotten longer and rehabilitation programs have fallen by the wayside. Western Europe attempts to prepare its criminals for life after prison, whereas many American prisons today leave their inhabitants reduced and debased. In the last quarter of a century, Europe has worked to ensure that the baser human inclination toward vengeance is not reflected by state policy, yet America has shown a systemic drive toward ever increasing levels of harshness in its criminal policies. Why is America so short on mercy? In this deeply researched, comparative work, James Q. Whitman reaches back to the 17th and 18th centuries to trace how and why American and European practices came to diverge. Eschewing the usual historical imprisonment narratives, Whitman focuses instead on intriguing differences in the development of punishment in the age of Western democracy. European traditions of social hierarchy and state power, so consciously rejected by the American colonies, nevertheless supported a more merciful and dignified treatment of offenders. The hierarchical class system on the continent kept alive a tradition of less-degrading "high-status" punishments that eventually became applied across the board in Europe. The distinctly American, draconian regime, on the other hand, grows, Whitman argues, out of America's longstanding distrust of state power and its peculiar, broad-brush sense of egalitarianism. Low-status punishments were evenly meted out to all offenders, regardless of class or standing. America's unrelentingly harsh treatment of transgressors--this "equal opportunity degradation"-- is, in a very real sense, the dark side of the nation's much vaunted individualism. A sobering look at the growing rift between the United States and Europe, Harsh Justice exposes the deep cultural roots of America's degrading punishment practices.


American punishment is comparatively harsh, comparatively degrading, comparatively slow to show mercy. So I want to show. But what exactly do we mean by “degradation, ” “harshness, ” and “mercy”?

The Dynamic of Degradation

Degradation is at once one of the most obvious aspects of punishment, and one of the most neglected. It is clear that offenders feel punished partly because they feel degraded. It is clear that degradation has a complex interpersonal dynamic: when we punish someone in a degrading way, our relationship to that person changes. It is also clear that it has a complex social and political dynamic: the urge to degrade criminal offenders can have a powerful impact on the overall harshness of a criminal justice system, and it can play a dramatic role in the shaping of mass politics. Yet most of our philosophers of punishment, and too many of our sociologists of punishment, have little to say on the topic. Much of what I want to argue in this book is that this neglect of degradation has undermined our analysis of punishment. We miss too much of what is going on in the contemporary United States, in particular, if we do not think about what degradation is and how it works.

What, then, is “degradation”? The term is in very wide use in the law, especially in the literature of international human rights. Leading international . . .

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