Let’s assume that we punish criminals in order to “teach them a lesson”: by imposing pain, suffering or unpleasantness on the criminal we intend to make it clear that he or she has done wrong and that we “as a society” disapprove. This lesson in turn is supposed to prevent criminals from reoffending, and hence it is intended to enhance respect for society’s rules. Punished criminals may not always internalize society’s rules and change their mentalities or criminal convictions as a result of “the lesson”, but at least the unpleasantness of “the lesson” will deter them from acting on the basis of their mentalities and convictions. In short, criminal punishment is a means to achieve moral progress. Perhaps if we’re lucky we’ll achieve moral progress in the minds of people, but if we don’t we’ll certainly see moral progress in people’s actions. Or so the story goes.
This is perhaps the most widely shared view of criminal punishment, which is weird when you think of it. After all, one can very easily identify numerous problems with this view. First of all, we impose criminal punishment for the violation of a wide range of rules, many of which we would not or should not view as moral rules. Some of those rules are perhaps even immoral: for instance, the rule against the use of soft drugs can be and often is seen as immoral because it restricts personal freedom. The imposition of punishment for the violation of such immoral rules is a clear step backward from the point of view of morality. No progress there. (The same is true for merely a-moral rules).
Furthermore, one can argue that many of the punishments we impose even for moral rules are in fact brutalizing. Prison is a school for criminals and prison crime is rampant. To argue that imprisonment deters crime and makes the world more moral is to deny the facts of prison life. Prisoners often just become better criminals and make others better criminals, both inside prison and upon release.
And finally, there are certain psychological biases present in those who impose criminal punishment, and these biases also undermine the story of “the lesson”. For example:
In graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I proctored law school exams to earn extra money. At the end of one exam, while I was collecting the final papers, I overheard two students discussing their answers on an essay question about sentencing. One said to the other: “I gave the rich guy a lesser sentence because I figured, since he had such a cushy life, it would take less punishment to get through to him.” … the perception that Black people have already had to cope with a great deal of pain — from racism, poverty, poor health, etc — and, as a result, have a greater pain threshold. In other words, they are less sensitive to pain because they’ve been hardened.
Efforts to parse out whether this effect is due to race specifically or perceptions of whether a person has lived a hard life suggest that it might be primarily the latter. But … we tend to homogenize the Black population and assume that all Black people face adversity. So, whether the phenomenon is caused by race or status gets pretty muddy pretty fast.
In any case, this is perfectly in line with the soon-to-be-lawyer I overheard at Wisconsin. He gave the “hardened criminal” a harsher sentence than the person convicted of a white-collar crime because he believed that a greater degree of suffering was required to make an impact. (source)
The unfair imposition of punishment as illustrated in this case and in many other real cases of punishment makes a joke of the story about moral progress resulting from the “lesson” of punishment. I’m not saying that fair punishment, deterrence or internalization of rules are impossible. What I’m saying is that we are usually too optimistic about these processes and that we shouldn’t view our current system of criminal punishment as a good driver of moral progress.