Judges: Is Incarceration Punishment or Rehab?

Paducah, KY – McCracken Circuit Judge Craig Clymer sentenced 20-year-old Taylor Thompson last month to two and a half years in prison. Thompson admitted supplying the hallucinogenic mushrooms 18-year-old Caleb Barnett took before being fatally shot after breaking into a home he thought was his own. Despite dozens of letters from the community and even the support of Barnett's parents requesting Thompson receive probation over prison time, Clymer said it was necessary to send a message to young people about the serious consequences of using drugs and alcohol. Chris Taylor has more on differing and maybe controversial views on the way judges sometimes hand down sentences.

The only way a person can find themselves in one of the state's corrections facilities is through a Judge. Determining what measure will most likely ensure the convicted won't offend again is the ultimate goal of sentencing. This is Circuit Judge Clymer's twentieth year seated in McCracken County. He oversees the bulk of general jurisdiction in capitol offense, felony, and civil litigation cases. Clymer says he doesn't think much about rehabilitation when sentencing.

Clymer- Just sitting there behind bars and being with the people that are in there with them without any kind of programs or anything like that. That's rehab in itself. If you call rehab programs and education and that sort of thing, that's for the corrections department to determine.

Kentucky's Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Secretary J. Michael Brown heads the Commonwealth's correctional facilities, which offer a variety of treatment programs. He says many inmates fall under program categories like: sex offenders, substance abusers or people with anger management issues. Brown says the programs are only part of the correction system's attempt to rehabilitate inmates. Other programs both in and out of the prison system work to prepare to re-integrate inmates into society.

Brown- If we can do a better job on these re-entry programs and the preparation for re-entry and the programs that they get once their out in society, that will cut our recidivism rate, and that's obviously a great societal goal. I mean we would hope when someone leaves prison when they've completed a sentence that we don't want to see them again.

Whether the purpose of incarceration is to rehabilitate, punish or a bit of both is debatable. Many Kentucky Judges agree it plays two purposes: attempting to make an offender understand their behavior won't be tolerated and to keep them away from the public so while detained, they can't offend again. Circuit Judge Dennis Foust has overseen cases in Marshall and Calloway Counties for almost 12 years now. He says in some cases sentences are more about punishment than anything else.

Foust- Now if you're talking about drug traffickers that are trying to make a dollar at someone else's expense, then it would be punishment. For the users who are addicted and have problems, it is more of a first stage in rehabilitation because strict incarceration does not work very well.

Both judges look at the same factors to determine a sentence, like prior criminal history and the seriousness of the offense. They use a pre-sentence investigation report from Kentucky's Department of Probation and Parole to help gauge a punishment's appropriateness. Judge Clymer.

Clymer- It's all a big balancing act and a very serious balancing act and when it comes down to crunch it's what I feel like is appropriate given what's in that report that I have in my hand or what maybe even my gut tell me about this person.

Judge Foust.

Foust- It is one of the hardest parts of the job because its not just the effect it has on the individual. It goes far beyond that.

Foust says sentencing can disrupt lives: jobs can be lost, families lose support and it's not always easy because each situation is different. Both Clymer and Foust agree violent and other crimes against people are often sentenced with punishment in mind, which can also affect others.

Foust- In a situation where a family has lost someone say to some sort of a homicide. No matter what I do in the court system, I can't replace their loss, but sometimes the punishment does help them in terms of giving them closure.

Clymer says sometimes he relies on his intuition to make a decision. He says he always tries to give a fair sentence in accordance with the law and that a sentence he hands down sets an example.

Clymer- I personally believe that the sentence a person gets does send a message to people that they just can't commit that type of offense. I don't think it's appropriate just to take a certain individual and say well just because we need to send a message we're going to put you in prison for a long time.

Judge Foust says only those in the court system would get that message.

Foust- That does send a signal to defendants, to attorneys as to what a person can expect. I don't know that as a judge that I am necessarily wanting to send a message to the community at large because I think each case has to be handled individually.

Clymer says he won't comment on Taylor Thompson's case, but is aware his ruling caused some controversy.

Clymer- I just have to be able to go home like every other judge, and I know that the people out there that will criticize, maybe some think it was right, some think it was wrong. I mean I'm the one that bears the responsibility and I gave it my best shot and hopefully it was the right decision.

Judges will continue to uphold the law through sentence incarceration. They'll continue despite whether it's goal is to punish, reform or simply banish offenders without thought of recidivism rates. Judge Foust thinks if judges had more say in a convict's rehabilitation then it could drive those numbers down, depending on the availability of community-based services.