‘Why is America So Punitive?’

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America’s views on punishment are rooted in its history of slavery and racism, and meaningful criminal justice reform will require learning from the past, concluded criminal justice experts at the end of  the first-ever Interdisciplinary Roundtable on Punitiveness in America.

The report on the April 2015 discussion at John Jay College of Criminal Justice—which included remarks from 32 criminal justice experts based in the U.S. and overseas—was released today.

“Roundtable participants agreed that what is significant about the movement to end mass incarceration is that it forces people to question the very nature of punishment in America: who we punish, what we punish, how and why,” states the report entitled “Why is America So Punitive? A Report on the Deliberations of The Interdisciplinary Roundtable on Punitiveness in America.” They conclude that reform will require “a deep understanding of … history, the unresolved legacy of slavery, the human emotions of revenge and forgiveness, the principled limits of the power of the State, the role of religion and values in shaping culture, and the dynamics of political power and economic forces.”

Questions raised during the roundtable include how decisions about punishment reflect an individual’s dignity in keeping with international human rights laws, whether the U.S. should attempt to bring its criminal justice system in line with other developed nations, religion’s role in criminal justice and whether there is room in the system for conveying compassion and mercy.

“Understanding why we punish can in fact help inform and change the way we hold people accountable for their wrongdoing,” Laurie Garduque, director for justice reforms for the John D. and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation, is quoted as saying during the discussion.

Read the full report here.

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