Question: Is running prisons a legitimate function of government or should they be privatized? Private prisons are a billion dollar industry here in the United States, but should they be left to private companies or should the government handle them instead?
Question: What justifies punishing people for committing crimes? In your 2006 graduate paper, "The Scope Problem in Punishment," you criticize utilitarian theories of punishment that aim for deterrence of future crimes on the grounds that they don't punish all and only those who are guilty. Yet why is that a problem? Moreover, why should a criminal be punished if doing so won't have any future benefits, such as deterring future crimes? Doesn't self-interest require that actions have some future benefit – and if so, shouldn't all punishment have some positive future effect like deterrence?
Question: Are public shamings morally justifiable? I often read of judges handing down sentences designed to humiliate the offender, such as standing at a busy intersection wearing a sandwich board apologizing for their offense. Many people favor these kinds of punishments in lieu of jail time because they consume less resources of the penal system. They may be more effective too. Does that justify such shamings? Moreover, what's the morality of similar shamings by parents and businesses? A bodega in my neighborhood posts surveillance camera footage of shoplifters, usually with some snarky comment about their theft. I find this practice amusing, but is that moral? Is it akin to vigilantism?
Summary: What is the work of a prosecutor really like? In this interview, former Arizona prosecutor William E. Perry discussed the cases he prosecuted and various issues in criminal law – including the role of juries, standards of evidence, the drug war, confessions, and plea bargaining.
Question: Should parents make empty threats to their children? At the grocery store last week, I heard a mother threaten to throw away her daughter's favorite toys unless the daughter behaved. That seems to be pretty common: parents make empty threats in an attempt to scare their kids into better behavior. They'll say that it works, and perhaps it does. But what are the consequences? Are such empty threats a valid parenting technique?
Summary: Many parents think that they can only teach their children proper behavior by imposing punishments and rewards. Such methods, however, often teach the child the wrong lesson. In contrast, Jenn Casey and Kelly Elmore advocate a parenting method known as "positive discipline," which involves setting and enforcing limits, but not punishment and rewards. How does that work? Why does it work?
Question: Is corporal punishment of children ever proper? The 2011 video of Judge William Adams beating his daughter raises the question of whether it's ever necessary or proper to physically discipline children. Does the age of the child matter, particularly given that you can't reason with younger children? Does the amount of force used matter? When does physical punishment violate the child's rights?
Question: Is the death penalty moral? I understand why people are opposed to the death penalty when there might be genuine doubt as to whether the accused person really committed the crime. Certainly, we've seen cases where DNA evidence has exonerated someone who was convicted several years ago for a crime they didn't actually commit. But if someone confesses to first degree murder and if there's incontrovertible physical evidence to confirm their guilt, is the death penalty then appropriate?
Question: Why is punishing an innocent man worse than failing to punish a guilty man? English jurist William Blackstone said that "better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer." What does this mean, and is it true? Is some higher ratio of wrongly-punished to wrongly-released acceptable?
Question: What (if any) is the appropriate response to a parent hitting his or her child in public? Generally, I remove my own children as quickly as I can so they don't have to witness it, and have shot my share of shocked and disgusted looks toward the parents in question. (For the record, I'm opposed to physical punishment of children, but I even know parents who do spank who are similarly shocked and uncomfortable when others do this in public.)