Even if every convict were rightly sentenced, America’s vast, racially skewed incarceration system would still be morally indefensible.
I am not saying that a criminal has no agency in his behavior. Rather, I am arguing that the larger society is implicated in a criminal’s choices because we have acquiesced to social arrangements that work to our benefit and to his detriment—that shape his consciousness and his sense of identity in a way that the choices he makes (and that we must condemn) are nevertheless compelling to him.
Put simply, the structure of our cities with their massive ghettos is a causal factor in the deviancy among those living there. Recognition of this fact has far-reaching implications for the conduct of public policy. What goals are our prisons trying to achieve, and how should we weigh the enormous costs they impose on our fellow, innocent citizens?
In short, we must think of justice as a complex feedback loop. The way in which we distribute justice—putting people in prison—has consequences, which raise more questions of justice, like how to deal with convicts’ families and communities, who are also punished, though they themselves have done nothing wrong. Even if every sentence handed out to every prisoner were itself perfectly fair (an eminently dubious proposition), our system would still be amoral, because it punishes innocents. Those who claim on principled arguments that “a man deserves his punishment” are missing the larger picture. A million criminal cases, each rightly decided—each distributing justice to a man who deserves his sentence—still add up to a great and historic wrong.
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