Rape and the carceral state

Regarding Brock Turner, the Facebook/Twitter mob has called for a higher level of incarceration. In response, some lefties who I generally agree with are making the point that our country is vastly over-incarcerated and that if we are going to stick to our principles we can’t go calling for more incarceration when it makes us feel good.

As a lefty who believes the US does indeed sentence too many people to prison for terms too long, but who also believes Brock Turner got too light of a sentence for his crime, I think it’s useful to clarify the principles involved here.

First, “less incarceration” is something I agree with, but it is not a political principle in and of itself for anyone other than anarchists. Less incarceration is a policy – one many of us advocate as a response to our specific conditions here in the US. Appropriate incarceration; effective incarceration; those are principles.

As such, it is possible for us to believe in less incarceration in the vast majority of cases, yet still acknowledge that there are crimes in our society that are under-incarcerated. War crimes and financial crimes come to mind. So do abuses of authority and power, corruption, police brutality and prosecutorial misconduct. And rape. Our justice system has long under-valued the safety of adult women (and LGBTs and other minorities). It has also vastly under-estimated the damage rape does to victims. In fact within our prisons themselves we treat rape as a tool of justice.

It’s true that “sex offender” lists have become Kafkaesque nightmares; a form of bureaucratic sadism rendered unjustifiable by even the most elementary morality. But rapists are dangerous and made more so by our society’s permissive attitude toward their crimes. Six months is too short a sentence for some crimes, and rape is one of them. Believing that we shouldn’t impose life sentences for shoplifiting is not incompatible with the belief that our attitude toward rape has been too permissive.

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