Originally published September 19, 2016
The United States has 5 per cent of the world’s population but 25 per cent of its prisoners. Right now, 2.2 million people are locked up across the country, and while crime has been decreasing since the 1990s, rates of imprisonment are at historic highs. Americans across the political spectrum are deeply dissatisfied with this state of affairs, and agree that mass incarceration costs too much and achieves too little. But there’s also much disagreement – about the role of systemic racism, about the causes of police violence, about the importance of personal responsibility and retribution.
Nevertheless, people can find common ground on three fundamental moral norms that should govern the use of imprisonment as punishment. First, punishments should be proportional to crimes. Second, like cases should be treated alike. Third, criminal punishment should not do more harm than good. Unfortunately, the US system violates each of these principles.
Proportionality requires that the punishment fit the crime. This is more than a mere cliché. It means punishments should be neither excessive nor insufficient. Imprisonment for a parking ticket would be wrong, but so would a slap on the wrist for rape.