Punishing with Care: treating offenders as equal persons in criminal punishment

Dissertation, The London School of Economics and Political Science (2013)
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Abstract

Most punishment theories acknowledge neither the full extent of the harms which punishment risks, nor the caring practices which punishment entails. Consequently, I shall argue, punishment in most of its current conceptualizations is inconsistent with treating offenders as equals qua persons. The nature of criminal punishment, and of our interactions with offenders in punishment decision-making and delivery, risks causing harm to offenders. Harm is normalized when central to definitions of punishment, desensitizing us to unintended harms and obscuring caring practices. Offenders may be partially silenced and excluded by mainstream criminal justice practices which limit interaction between offenders and practitioners. When we ignore significant harms, or silence and exclude, we treat others as passive non-subjects. This partially objectifies offenders, and is inconsistent with treatment as equals. Penal theories employing harm-centred and harm-normalizing definitions of punishment can provide few resources to help practitioners either avoid, or recognize and respond to, harms. Care ethics, by contrast, motivates the avoidance of harm, ongoing inclusive engagement, and respectful interaction with others. I argue that defining punishment without presupposing harm facilitates the identification of morally problematic harms, and recognition of caring practices. I offer a principled argument, and political and pragmatic supplementary arguments, for responding to offenders without intentional harm and with care. Principles drawn from care ethics can help to strengthen mainstream criminal practices by structuring decision-making and action. Bottom-up alternative criminal justice practices share some values with these proposed guiding principles, allowing a partial test of the principles. I consider examples of restorative justice practices, therapeutic jurisprudence, community justice and other problem-solving court practices, in addition to considering how well mainstream punishment practices measure up to these principles. My analysis illuminates the strengths and weaknesses of the principles, and how they might contribute to securing treatment as equals for offenders in mainstream practices. 

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Helen Brown Coverdale
University College London

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