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The Times reports that Martin Tankleff was just granted a second trial after spending 17 years in prison for a crime that he very likely didn't commit. If he's found not guilty, or, more to the point, if he's in fact not guilty, why doesn't he have the right to commit 17 years' worth of crimes "free of charge"? OK, maybe not 17 full years' worth, but you'd admit, I hope, that at least some of the jurisprudence of punishment is based on retribution, so can you discuss the role of his time served in future punishment deliberations?

For instance, say he happens to commit a crime later in life, not out of some sense of entitlement, but for any of the other "normal" reasons (like passion!): how relevant should his time served be?

December 22, 2007

Response from Allen Stairs on December 24, 2007

My impulse is to say that we're mixing apples and eggnog. It's true that retribution is part of the way we think about punishment. But however we understand retribution, it's hard to see how the State's wrong against you would make it okay for you to rob me or beat me up. After all, even though I'm part of the body politic, qua private citizen, I don't represent the state. And in any case, robbery, embezzlement, assault and various sorts of mayhem are the kinds of things we should shy away from. Giving someone a free pass on future misdeeds because of past mistreatment by the State seems to miss that point.


If Mr. Tankleff is indeed found not guilty, then it's not unreasonable to think that he should receive some sort of compensation. But 17 years (or even 17 days) of punishment-free crime doesn't seem like the right way to go. Things being what they are (no time machines, no guaranteed life-extending potions...) monetary compensation sounds like a much better idea, even though it can't make up for 17 lost years.


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