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Long-term incarceration and the moral limits of punishment

Bronsther, Jacob (2018) Long-term incarceration and the moral limits of punishment. PhD thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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Identification Number: 10.21953/lse.jbjq0d749jul


This thesis, inquiring into the permissibility of long-term incarceration, maintains that two sets of reasons determine the moral limits of punishment. First, the reasons that justify the infliction of penal harm will only license “proportionate” or “parsimonious” means of realizing our penal aims. Part I, searching for these reasons, conceives of the criminal law as a system of protections, upon which all citizens rely for their assured liberty. An offender weakens this system by contributing to the threat of “criminality.” The state is thereby entitled, and only entitled, to harm him as a means of “erasing” his criminality contributions, generally by deterring would-be future offenders. This precludes long-term incarceration in most, but not all cases, given the tenuous relationship between penal severity and deterrence. The second set of reasons opposes degrading punishments. Is long-term incarceration impermissibly degrading, irrespective of its proportionality or usefulness otherwise? Part II gains traction by considering torture, the exemplar of degrading treatment. I define torture as the intentional infliction of a suffusive panic. I argue that it is egregiously “disrespectful” of the human capacity to realize value. It converts a diachronic being capable of building a good life through time into a synchronic being whose awareness is restricted to a maximally terrible present. Meanwhile, a prison sentence is “long-term,” I argue, if it severely risks ruining an inmate’s life, just in virtue of the amount of time that he is separated from society and thereby deprived of certain associational goods (e.g. a family and career). Long-term incarceration for reasons of retribution or deterrence intentionally inflicts this life-ruining harm. It is thus impermissibly disrespectful of a person’s value-generating capacities, I conclude, akin to penal torture. Long-term incarceration for the reason of incapacitation, however, whereby the state is not motivated to harm the offender, can be legitimate.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © 2018 Kate Alexander Shaw
Library of Congress subject classification: K Law > K Law (General)
Sets: Departments > Law
Supervisor: Ramsay, Peter and Lacey, Nicola

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