The Irrational Appeal of the Punishment Paradigm: How “Tough on Crime” Subverts Reason and Empathy

Student: Curry Carr
Mentor: Shari Stone-Mediatore (OWU Department of Philosophy)

This investigation will examine the ways of thinking that facilitated the enactment of harsh sentencing laws in the U.S., with a specific focus on truth in sentencing laws in Illinois.

Truth in sentencing laws dictate that people convicted of violent crimes must serve 85%-100% of their sentences, basically eliminating their chances for parole for good behavior. In the 1980s and 1990s almost every state enacted truth in sentencing laws after federal funding was promised to those who do. The implementation of these laws, in some ways, seemed to follow reason, especially when states lowered the requisite time served during a prison sentence but required the offender to serve the full time.

Illinois implemented these laws in a particularly harsh manner. They kept sentences the same but required violent offenders to serve the full duration of the sentence. In addition, Illinois had abolished parole in 1978. As a result, many people argue that sentences have become too long, and people in Illinois are imprisoned far longer than what’s needed for public safety.

The aim of this investigation is to critically examine the narratives and images that have rationalized these harsher sentences. For the first part of my study I will research the arguments made in the media and by politicians for harsher sentencing. I will use this research to trace to how images of the “violent offender” have been constructed and how they have prejudiced us against recognizing the humanity of people convicted of violent crimes. The second part of my study will engage this humanity. I will read essays by people affected by long term sentencing and possibly conduct interviews in order to engage with these people as human beings and better understand the human effects of the laws.

More information about this project in Digital Commons @ OWU

Contact Info


Merrick Hall
65 S. Sandusky St.
Delaware, OH 43015
P 740-368-3075

OWU Connection Programs
Merrick Hall