Date of Award


Document Type

Union College Only

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts



Second Department


First Advisor

Leo Zaibert

Second Advisor

Ellen Foster




prison, overcrowding, crime, rehabilitation, punishment


In May of 2011 the United States Supreme Court ruled that overcrowding in California’s state prison system deprives inmates of physical and mental healthcare and that this deprivation constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. The State’s economic woes had left prisoners in a state of squalor and neglect. Brown v. Plata ordered a drastic reduction of California’s prison population in order to comply with the Constitution. In response, the State’s legislature devised Assembly Bill 109. It detailed a “realignment” plan that would move responsibility for those committing lower-level, non-serious, non-sexual, and non-violent offences after October 1, 2011 from the state to the county level. With money provided by the State, counties are expected to devise plans to accommodate the realignment. The way California has treated its prisoners and its efforts to relieve the situation are the backdrop against which I discuss usefulness of the consequentialist-economic approach to crime and punishment and why I find it more appealing than its major competitor, retributivism, which focuses on offenders’ moral desert. I outline the economist’s “cost-benefit” approach to crime and discuss its applicability in California. But both the consequentialist-economic and retributivist approaches have drawbacks. The consequentialist attempts to justify indecent behavior if the consequences of not doing so are grave while the retributivist urge can drown out other important considerations. I argue that some things ought never be done, regardless of consequence considerations or considerations of a person’s negative moral desert.