Saturday, February 2, 2013

People Want Criminals to Suffer, Even If It Is “Useless”

Original Article

A large body of experimental research has sought to determine whether punishment is motivated more by instrumental considerations (deterrence, incapacitation, etc.) or by retributive urges. The various studies, although limited in important ways, have generally pointed to retribution as the primary factor in driving penal decisions in response to hypothetical fact patterns.

Add to this body of research an interesting new study Eyal Aharoni and Alan Fridlund, “Punishment Without Reason: Isolating Retribution in Lay Punishment of Criminal Offenders,” 18 Psych., Pub. Pol’y & L. 599 (2012).

Aharoni and Fridlund presented subjects with various versions of a hypothetical homicide case and then asked how much the killer should be made to suffer and what sentence should be imposed.

In the various versions, they cleverly manipulated the facts so as to add or subtract instrumental justifications for punishment. For instance, in one version, the legal proceedings were conducted entirely in private, thus supposedly eliminating general deterrence as a rational purpose of punishment. They also sought to manipulate the intentionality of the crime, stipulating sometimes that it was deliberate and sometimes that it resulted from a brain tumor. Since intentionality is thought to be a key variable in retributive judgments, this manipulation helps to isolate the effect of retributive purposes of punishment.

Consistent with earlier studies, Aharoni and Fridlund found that their subjects wanted the intentional wrongdoer to suffer and to receive a long sentence, even when punishment was useless (in the sense of lacking a deterrent or incapacitative justification).

The authors reached similar conclusions in a second, related study, in which subjects were presented with a single vignette in which punishment again lacked any apparent instrumental justification. Initially, more than 90% of the subjects favored punishment. An interviewer then sought to determine the reasons for punishment, which the interviewer rebutted. For instance, if a subject provided an incapacitative rationale, the interviewer would remind the subject that the offender had become permanently paralyzed after commission of the crime, which removed any threat of future dangerousness. Even after being talked out of any instrumental value to the punishment, more than 70% of the subjects continued to support punishment.

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