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The Harmful Consequences of Punitive Force
By Billy S. Humphrey
Published: 03/23/2009

Consequences punitive force I recently reviewed literature which indicated that punitive force is similar in definition to corporal punishment. The Wikipedia encyclopedia defines corporal punishment as the deliberate infliction of pain intended to punish a person or modify their behavior. Elizabeth Gershoff of Columbia University defines it as the use of physical force with the intention of causing a person to experience pain but not injury for the purposes of correction or control. (Gershoff pg. 540). Criminal justice literature provides us with a definition also of what is referred to as punitive force. Punitive force is force that is meant to punish rather than merely to bring a situation under control (Del Carmen). The significant difference between these two definitions relative to their impact on people is that Criminal Justice practitioners who utilize punitive force usually do so without regard for injury. It is oftentimes their intent to punish as well as injure. The majority of the physical injuries to children who are subjected to corporal punishment are not intentional.

I fully understand that many situations arise in the field of criminal justice where the utilization of reasonable force is both necessary and appropriate. The primary objective of this article is to make a genuine effort to clearly distinguish for criminal justice practitioners the difference between reasonable and punitive force, and to enhance our understanding of the harmful consequences of force which is meant to punish rather than control.

Administrative challenges with the utilization of punitive force in criminal justice organizations are frequently discussed in the literature. Corrections as well as law enforcement policies define and discuss the reasonable use of force and outline specific circumstances when it is considered both necessary and appropriate. It is usually when we as practitioners allow our emotions to impact our decision making that we utilize unreasonable force which is intended to be punitive in nature. We then react to situations as opposed to responding in a manner that is consistent with our professional training. A conceptual understanding of the fundamental difference between a response and a reaction is significant for each of us who serve the public as criminal justice practitioners.

I recently served in an executive capacity with a juvenile justice organization. The workforce over the years seemed to have become over reliant on physical force. In numerous incidents, it was also obvious that the staff had become accustomed to utilizing punitive force when reacting to a variety of adolescent behaviors. It seemed as if the system itself had legitimized the utilization of corporal punishment. The end result after many years of this type of conduct was an unhealthy culture where violence and serious injuries were simply regarded as the norm. Subcultures are widely discussed in the literature of occupational deviance and corruption (Souryal). They frequently lead to criminal and unprofessional acts committed under the guise of legitimate work procedures (Souryal). The workers had become so accustomed to using physical force as their standard response to misconduct that they truly believed they were doing the right thing. It is true that a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong eventually gives it the superficial appearance of being right.

Our system of juvenile justice rightfully places a great deal of emphasis on rehabilitation, reentry and the prevention of future criminal conduct. Of all offenders, adolescents are most amenable to treatment (Ortiz). Our programs for delinquent adolescents can only be successful if the culture of the agency itself is healthy. Many delinquents have previously been the victim of physical abuse. The use of punitive force by juvenile justice officials only causes additional harm and serves to destroy our professional credibility. This hinders the ability of correctional institutions to serve as agents of positive change.

The use of punitive force is also detrimental to the mission and the success of organizations tasked with incarcerating, controlling and rehabilitating adult offenders. I was recently asked to be a guest speaker for an undergraduate class at a local university. I noticed that a young man had several abrasions on his head and face. When I asked the young man what had happened, he told the class that he was a corrections officer and that he had been involved in an altercation with an offender. He then proceeded to describe how several employees used punitive force to teach the offender a lesson after the initial altercation. The offender had to be transported to a regional medical facility as a result of the injuries sustained. A corrections officer who was assigned to the receiving medical facility was also present in the class. He proceeded to tell the class how they had received a call notifying them of the fact that the offender was en route, and that punitive force was administered again once the offender arrived at the medical facility for treatment. They were asked by their classmates how they had justified the utilization of force and they responded by explaining the concept of ‘creative writing’. They explained it as a practice where officials submit false reports claiming that an offender ‘clinched their fists’ or otherwise approached them with an ‘aggressive posture’. These exaggerated reports provide justification for the utilization of force that would otherwise be considered inappropriate. The officers said that the offender eventually had to be transported out of the area into another region so as to prevent further harm.

The offender involved in this particular incident is probably a more significant threat to other people since this experience with punitive force in a prison setting. Punitive correctional policies neither deter nor rehabilitate (Souryal).

Managers in law enforcement agencies must also be vigilant in their efforts to prevent staff from utilizing punitive force. The police have a monopoly on the use of force in our communities (Souryal).

I have interviewed numerous offenders over the past two decades who have been charged with evading arrest. Their file and personal accounts of the experience reveals that many of them were also chased on foot by law enforcement officials and later charged additionally with the assault of a peace officer. The vast majority of offenders sharing these types of experiences were injured during the arrest process. I have come to the conclusion based on my experiences in the field that in many jurisdictions the police use punitive force against a suspect when they are apprehended subsequent to a foot chase. I have verified this conclusion with many of my friends in the law enforcement community.

This type of conduct is not consistent with the ideals of community oriented policing. Healthy relationships with the public cannot be sustained when those who are meant to protect and serve physically abuse members of the community. This can only serve to cause fear and a significant lack of trust between members of the public and the police.

As a public official, there is usually one fact which is consistently true when we decide to use punitive force. We are angry. This premise helps us to fully comprehend the difference between a response and a reaction. A response is consistent with agency policies, operational procedures and our organizational training. It is tactical, strategic and supported by critical thinking even when responding to a crisis. When we react to a situation it is our human emotions which are allowed to interfere with our decision making process. The majority of us do not make good decisions when we are angry.

Good order is indeed the foundation of all good things (Dilulio). However, there is always a legitimate response to any and all of the numerous situations we encounter in the field of criminal justice. It is this legitimacy which provides us with the ability to maintain social order. Legitimacy induces compliance, whereas illegitimacy induces noncompliance (Tyler). If our actions as professionals are not regarded as proper and legitimate, then we lack the respect and the influence necessary to achieve our desired results. We then find ourselves without the ability to maintain order, and are subsequently left with chaos.

Criminal justice is a system where are our business is people. If we are truly committed to positive change, social order and the correction of others, we must ensure as practitioners that we are willing to control and correct ourselves (Souryal).

The utilization of punitive force is never reasonable (del Carmen).There is always a better way.

Billy S. Humphrey began his career in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in 1989. He has served as Warden and Director of Training / Staff Development in Adult Corrections, and as Deputy Director of Juvenile Corrections. He is currently Assistant Director of Correctional Managed Care.

Other articles by Humphrey:

Primum Non Nocere

Legal Liabilities and Other Consequences of Police Misconduct. Chapter 12 Rolando V. del Carmen

Governing Prisons John J. Dilulio The Free Press 1987.

Corporal Punishment by Parents and Associated Child Behaviors and Experiences Elizabeth T. Gershoff Psychological Bulletin 2002 Vol. 128 No. 4.

Juvenile Death Penalty: Is it “cruel and unusual” in light of contemporary standards? Adam C. Ortiz Criminal Justice Magazine Winter 2003 Vol. 17 Issue 4.

Ethics in Criminal Justice: In Search of the Truth Sam S. Souryal 4th Edition Anderson Publishing 2007.

Why People Obey The Law Tom R. Tyler Princeton University Press 2006.

The Moral Sense James Q. Wilson The Free Press 1993.


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  3. DFox on 03/30/2009:

    I think that this article sheds light on a very serious paradigm that has, and unfortunately, will most likely always plague the correctional system. I particularly liked your comparison between reacting and responding. In an ideal world, one which is seemingly unattainable, officials would always default to responding instead of reacting, one hundred percent of the time. I feel that as long as there is a margin for human error, this issue will always exist as well. Fantastic work, and a good read.

  4. Dazed IT/CO on 03/30/2009:

    "The majority of the physical injuries to children who are subjected to corporal punishment are not intentional." In dealing with corporal punishment inside a prison why insert this statement. It has nothing to do with prisons or prisoners. Even though most inmates act like children inserting this leads me to beleive the article is more about corporal punishment in general than that of prisoner treatment. I have seen corrections make a sweeping move the kinder gentler side when dealing with prisons. It makes some sense, however, there is something to be said with swift reactive retribution in the face of safety and to gain compliance. The caveat' here is that afterwards when cooler heads prevail to follow up with a conversation of understanding so that the offender understands why the actions were taken and what can be done in the future to prevent any further reactions of a similar sort. Personally I would like to see in this kinder gentler way a method of holding inmates more accountable and having them work for what they get. Corrections is a black hole into which millions of taxpayer dollars are spent to baby-sit the rebellious of society. Tired inmates cause less trouble and having them learn skills to care for themselves when and if the leave prison is more advisable than just warehousing them in an eight by ten cell.

  5. armando on 03/25/2009:


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