Crime and Punishment: Problems of the Supreme Court and U.S. Prison System

Aired: December 26, 2010

The Supreme Court and prison system of the United States are two critically important, yet imperfect, institutions of American justice. Throughout its history, the Supreme Court has made decisions which from a contemporary perspective seem inherently flawed and problematic. Likewise, each year incarcerated individuals are revealed to have been unjustly imprisoned, often being exonerated of their crime after serving many years in prison. In this installment of Humanities Connection, Dr. Milton Heumann, Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University, and Kiki Jamieson, Director of the Pace Center for Civil Engagement at Princeton University, explore the problems of the American legal system, from inconsistencies in its highest judicial body to the failures of its system of incarceration.

How can we reconcile the fact that the highest arbiter of justice in a nation that prides itself on its democratic principles is the Supreme Court, a non-elected body? In this segment, Heumann discusses the problems inherent to the Court, addressing the disparity in power and term limits between members of the Court, who are appointed for life, and the President, who holds office for only four years. He also comments on the practice of “mechanical jurisprudence”, by which judges rigidly adhere to legal precedent without any interpretation or consideration for its affect on modern society.

The Supreme Court has undergone a gradual, yet significant, demographic shift. From a group originally composed solely of older Protestant males, the court has become more diverse in terms of religion, race, gender, and age. In fact, today, there is no Protestant justices. What affect do these changes have on the Court? In this segment, Heumann discusses the conflict surrounding life-long appointments for Justices and assesses how well the current composition of the Court represents the American population.

In this segment, Jamieson explores the American citizen’s role in shaping justice and the individual’s responsibility to the greater common good. Drawing attention to a social paradox, Jamieson mentions that, while the majority of American citizens do not have confidence in their legal system, they nevertheless support and participate in it. She proposes three urgent reforms: higher standards for general legal representation, greater transparency, and stronger adherence to the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.

In this short clip, Jamieson calls into question the efficacy of rehabilitation, the central component to the United States’ prison system. Referring to incarceration as a “permanent black mark” and a “negative credential”, she calls for a reform of the current system responsible for the reintegration of ex-inmates.


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