For Your Society

How should we deal with wrongdoing? And you can’t say ‘prison.’

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Danielle Allen is a political theorist at Harvard University and a contributing columnist for The Post.

Here’s a thought experiment.

In September 1995, over the course of a single week, at the age of 15, my baby cousin, Michael, robbed four people at gunpoint in South Los Angeles and was himself shot in an attempted carjacking on the same block when that victim wrestled away his gun and shot him through the neck. Michael’s actions were terrible and shameful. Luckily, he was the only person physically injured.

To have to stand up in public and say that someone you love did these things is an experience no one wants.

Michael’s actions came out of the blue. This was his first arrest. He had no history of violence. He had no criminal record. Two years earlier, he had, though, received probation for the theft of a radio from the home of a neighbor for whom his mother was house-sitting; his mother had taken him to the police. Over the intervening period of time, Michael had begun to flirt with gangs. This relationship was crystallizing in that week of violence.

After his arrest, Michael’s mother wanted to bail him out. Michael asked her not to. He thought that if he were back on the streets, he would only get in more trouble.

How should a kid like Michael be sentenced? How, more generally, should we respond to wrongdoing? Here’s my challenge to you: In my thought experiment, you can’t answer “prison.”

Given that constraint, what punishment should Michael receive? Here are our goals: We want to respond to wrongdoing so as to ensure that victims are made whole, that society is made whole, and that the wrongdoer, too, becomes whole and, having paid recompense, is prepared to contribute productively to society.

Does your mind draw a blank? If so, you are like most of us, accustomed to a system that thinks incarceration is the only way to respond to wrongdoing.

In the United States, 70 percent of our criminal sanctions consist of incarceration. That’s why it’s all we can think of. But a world that operates without an extensive reliance on prison is not a utopia; it is only a plane ride away. In Germany, incarceration is used for 6 percent of sanctions; in the Netherlands, it’s 10 percent, according to a 2013 Vera Institute report comparing our criminal-justice system


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