Episode Information

WWL: On Punishment
Where We Live - with John Dankosky
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In this episode:

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.


Episode Audio

49:01 minutes (23.53 MB)
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The United States is home to just five percent of the earth’s population. But we lock up a staggering one quarter of the world’s prisoners.

From our puritan beginnings to our prison abuse scandals, America has an interesting history with punishment. We punish harder and longer than other democracies, which leads to a huge penal system that costs taxpayers billions of dollars. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that America's most longstanding and popular television programs (Cops, America's Most Wanted, CSI) portray criminals and the quest for justice. Today, Where We Live, we’ll begin a two-day discussion about how and why Americans punish…and why we decide to forgive. From how we raise our children to how we enforce our laws. What's changed and what hasn't since the days of town square floggings and hangings at the gallows? Journalist and author Anne-Marie Cusac joins philosopher Shelly Kagan.

Leave your questions and comments below.

This episode originally aired July 14, 2009.

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Listener email from Wendy


I found yesterday's show on punishment very interesting and thought-provoking. The one topic I was waiting to hear, but didn't, was on root cause. Why are these people in prison to begin with? What is it that motivates them to participate in illegal activities?
There are those who intentionally set out to do something illegal, those who do so by necessity (or perceived necessity), and those who have some underlying issues which could include poverty, alcohol, drugs, or mental illness that lead them to perform illegal acts.
If we as a country could focus our attention on root cause issues and spend tax dollars to address those issues I believe the number of people who end up in prison would be greatly reduced.
I'll be listening again today to hear people's views on forgiveness, something which I feel is key to our society's collective growth and healing.


Listener email from Josh

Thanks for this show. I'm working with a group of clergy and faith-based organizations in Hartford on attempting to reduce urban violence. One of our "mantras" is that our state (and the United States) spends too much time punishing and not enough time healing. We argue that the 'criminal justice' response to urban violence (i.e., the punitive response) fails to address a variety of root causes. We advocate pastoral and policy responses that treat urban violence as a public health crisis rather than solely as a criminal justice issue.

Specifically, when a person is shot or knifed in an urban setting, there are typically 50 other people (many of them children and youth) who experience some degree of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The term "yellow-tape kids" is in vogue. That is, children walking by yellow police tape on their way to school. They know someone has been assaulted or killed. They know they don't live in a safe community. This leads to PTSD. These young people are not unlike many of our soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. As this widespread, low-level PTSD goes untreated, more and more people enter into cycles of violence, crime, drug culture, etc. They ultimately end up in the prison system where PTSD is typically exacerbated, not treated. We are looking at a variety of strategies to treat PTSD in communities as a way to stem the tide of urban violence. But it requires a shift away from responding to violence solely as a criminal justice issue.


Rev. Josh Pawelek

ps--Thanks so much to Ms. Cusick (sp?) for highlighting Benjamin Rush's religious identity. However, Benjamin Rush was simply a Universalist, not a Unitarian Universalist. The American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America merged in 1961. We can only refer to Unitarian Universalists from that point on.