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Rethinking Punishment

Submitted by Katelyn May Clark on June 1, 2015 - 3:19pm

The practice and experience of punishment is one of the more pressing daily issues of human rights. 

In recognition of this fact, especially in our era of mass incarceration, the Law, Societies, and Justice Program and the University of Washington Center for Human Rights (UWCHR) are joining forces on a new project, titled “Rethinking Punishment: Human Rights in an Age of Mass Incarceration.”

The project was formally introduced to the UW community at an event on May 14.  Professor Angelina Godoy, a member of the LSJ faculty and the director of the UWCHR, used her opening remarks to explain the motivations for “Rethinking Punishment.” 

As she explained, the reality of incarceration in the United States means that millions of individuals are behind bars, and are largely forgotten once they get there.  For this reason, she is excited that the “Rethinking Punishment” projects will address an important topic, and will make good use of students in the LSJ Program.

“The real reason we are able to do any of this is because of the work of our exceptional students,” she explained. “This work will continue to grow and flourish in the future thanks to them.”

Godoy explained the project is “the brainchild” of LSJ faculty members Katherine Beckett and Steve Herbert. The project integrates students, faculty, research, and advocacy to develop new ways of thinking about punishment policy in the United States.

Herbert described how “Rethinking Punishment” developed from the mixed enrollment courses he has taught at the Washington State Reformatory (WSR).  These courses combine LSJ students with incarcerated students in classes taught exclusively inside the WSR.  The prisoner students participate in University Beyond Bars (UBB), a non-profit organization that provides college-preparatory and college-level courses inside the WSR.

In the mixed enrollment courses, Herbert said, it quickly became clear to him and the LSJ students that the UBB students were outstanding classmates and deeply thoughtful individuals. 

“In the conduct of the classroom the differences the LSJ students and the UBB students are non-existent,” Herbert said. “The only difference is at the end of the seminar the LSJ students can go home and the UBB students have to stay.”

Yet many of the UBB students will likely never leave prison, due to their excessively-long sentences.  Indeed, a large percentage of Washington State prisoners are serving life.

The increased use of life sentences is the focus on another project discussed at the recent symposium, the LSJ group honors project, supervised by Prof. Beckett.  That group did extensive research to determine the number of individuals serving life sentences.  They also investigated the policies that drove the high rates of life sentences.

Prof. Beckett explained how future “Rethinking Punishment” projects will involve research on how issues of crime and punishment can be reframed in public discussions to enable open consideration of alternatives to mass incarceration.  In any such projects, LSJ students will be deeply involved.

Such a role for LSJ students will be welcomed, said Dashni Amin, an LSJ senior who was part of the most recent mixed enrollment course.

“It’s not something you can just touch and then leave behind,” she said.


By Kate Clark | Communications Assistant

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