Barbarism, or, the Death Penalty

Paul Henry Rosenberg rad at
Wed Mar 3 08:28:01 PST 1999

Eric wrote:

> Bill Lear wrote:
> >>From time to time, sadly, we will find it necessary to remove people
> >from society because they pose too great a threat to others' freedoms
> >(including life, naturally). At the time we find such removal
> >necessary[...]
> Or maybe such removal--in the lock-em-up sense--isn't necessary. I saw
> Angela Davis speak a few weeks ago, and she bandied about the idea of the
> abolition of prisons--an idea that makes more sense the more I think about
> it. Her point was that prisons are relatively new institutions in human
> history and our infatuation with them may be just a passing fad. She also
> claimed that 300 hundred years ago the abolition of slavery seemed as
> absurd an idea as the abolition of prisons does today.
> But what to do about brutal murderers then? I don't know, but destroying
> capitalism seems like a good way to ensure that there a lot fewer of them.

A large part of the rationale for prisons was rehabilitation. Once they existed as institutions, this rapidly faded.

There is a growing movement to re-create a truly rehabilitative approach to crime, but it goes much deeper by re-examining our basic paradigm of justice.

Most commonly it goes by the name of "restorative justice" and one website with some info is CERJ - Campaign for Equity-Restorative Justice at

An interesting book that points in this direction is "A Rage To Punish" by Lois G. Forer, a former judge who routinely used restorative justice principles -- primarily restitution, but also the attitudes involved -- in place of punishment for a little better than a decade.

Elmar Weitkamp, a graduate student at University of Pennsylvania, anaylzed the record of her sentencing, roughly 1200 felony cases. This formed the basis of his doctoral dissertation “Restitution: A New Paradigm of Criminal Justice or a New Way to Widen the System of Social Control?”

Forer explained:

“Weitkemp examined 605 consecutive cases which I heard during the period 1974 to 1984. In that period I presided over major civil cases about half the time. He found that two thirds of these offenders had successfully completed their sentences of probation; they had paid the fines and restitution; they had not been rearrested.

“By my yartdstick, which measures success by the number of rearrests, the actual success rate is higher. Weitekamp found that 51 percent of those on probation who had been ordered to pay restitution had a revocation hearing. Of this group, in only 35.4 percent of the cases was probation revoked for commission of a new crime. The other cases involved technical violations such as not paying the restitution and fines on time, or not reporting: 55.1 percent of those sentenced to probation conditioned upon payment of restitution, reparations and/or fines had paid in full. Only 11.6 percent made no payments. New sentences of probation were imposed on those who did not make the required payments: 61.7 percent of these offenders successfully completed their sentences. Fewer than one fourth of those sentenced to probation and restitution were rearrested for other crimnes. By comparison, 41.4 percent of released prisoners in the United States are expected to be reincarcerated within three years of release from prison. The recidivism rate was higher in 1993.” (p123-4)

Yes, I know this may sound way too tame and reformist for some.

Me, I never believed in either/or thinking -- unless there are real material conditions that bifrucate possibilities, and it isn't possible to overcome these conditions.

IMHO, a more humane system of justice will HELP people to envision -- and feel entitled too a more humane social system than capitalism can ever deliver.

And, of course, the struggle to bring it about can help reveal contradictions that start people thinking in that direction.

-- Paul Rosenberg Reason and Democracy rad at

"Let's put the information BACK into the information age!"

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