Citations (6)



The Subjective Experience of Punishment

Adam J. Kolber

Brooklyn Law School


Columbia Law Review, Vol. 109, p. 182, January 2009
San Diego Legal Studies Paper No. 08-016

Suppose two people commit the same crime and are sentenced to equal terms in the same prison facility. I argue that they have identical punishments in name only. One may experience incarceration as challenging but tolerable while the other is thoroughly tormented by it. Even though people vary substantially in their experiences of punishment, our sentencing laws pay little attention to such differences.

I make two central claims: First, a successful justification of punishment must take account of offenders' subjective experiences when assessing punishment severity. Second, we have certain obligations to consider actual or anticipated punishment experience at sentencing, at least when we can do so in a cost-effective, administrable manner. Though it may seem impossible or prohibitively expensive to take punishment experience into account, we should not accept this excuse too quickly. In civil litigation, we often make assessments of emotional distress. Even if we cannot calibrate the punishments of individual offenders, we could enact broad policies that are better at taking punishment experience into account than those we have now.

I do not argue that more sensitive offenders should receive shorter prison sentences than less sensitive offenders who commit crimes of equal blameworthiness. I do, however, argue that when they are given equal prison terms, more sensitive offenders receive harsher punishments than less sensitive offenders and that it is a mistake to believe that both kinds of offenders receive punishments proportional to their desert.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 55

Keywords: Punishment, Retributivism, Consequentialism, Experience, Subjective, Neuroethics

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Date posted: February 5, 2008 ; Last revised: December 13, 2012

Suggested Citation

Kolber, Adam J., The Subjective Experience of Punishment (2009). Columbia Law Review, Vol. 109, p. 182, January 2009; San Diego Legal Studies Paper No. 08-016. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1090337

Contact Information

Adam Jason Kolber (Contact Author)
Brooklyn Law School ( email )
250 Joralemon Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201
United States

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