Social Sentencing

As the death penalty trial for the Boston Bomber is underway, and more incidents occur, I have begun to become more aware of the effect of social sentencing that occurs by the public and the media. Once someone becomes accused, arrested, or charged with committing an unjust act the American public and the media seem to jump to conclusions about if an individual is truly guilty, and then decide the sentence for this individual.

From Mike Brown to Freddie Gray to the Aurora Theater shooting and the Boston Bombing the public bases their opinions off of the media framing of each incident. The emotions connected with a violent or unnecessary death produce an environment that goes to the extremes. A surge of emotions causes people to think that ‘an eye for an eye’ is the best form of justice, and thus the death penalty is what the people cry for. While in some instances, such as that of the Boston Bomber, the death penalty may be the justified sentence for the spree of crime that ended with the streets of Boston looking more like a urban war zone rather than a historical city of deep passions. The people of Boston have waited and watched for two years for the decision from the court about the fate of the man who terrorized their city, but those outside of the city the media that defended on the traumatized city. This media set up a frame of what occurred, and handed down their judgement and their the appropriate sentencing, whether that match the outcome that the people of Boston called for or not.

In the recent cases of blacks dying at the hands of white cops it has sparked a debate of what justice for taking a life, innocent or not, should be in the case of those tasked to serve and protect. While no situation is identical the framing by the media places as many similarities as possible together to create coverage that draws in viewers. This combined framing of similarities and sentencing creates a mass hysteria that is creating riots and protests that have simultaneously set fire to cities such as Ferguson and Baltimore, and the judgments handed down by the courts that do not side with the overly emotional public just further deepen the rift forming between authority and the public.

While the public does not hand out judgements and sentences, the influences of the public reign strong on those citizens who eventually make it onto juries who ultimately decide the fate of those charged. The effect of social sentencing by the public delegitimizes the sources that were established to hand out just judgements and sentences, thus providing some explanation to the violence and distrust that currently exists in the US.


4 thoughts on “Social Sentencing

  1. Hmmm…A couple of thoughts. The public IS SUPPOSED TO the jury and the sovereign and the legal enforcement mechanism. It might be that if we actually thought of all the pieces of the legal system as extensions of our own political power, that we would feel a greater sense of responsibility to those being policed. But the problem is – as so many of the texts we have read show – that the police police some of us (people of color, most obviously for our class) and some of us ARE the police (whites, most obviously in this instance). The challenge is that those lines have existed for 400 years, and have only started to blur in the last 40. The argument is that there are longstanding effects, not only on individual psyches but on institutional practices.

    But also, it seems like you’re suggesting that the law is supposed to be ‘above’ society: that it’s neutral and objective. I’m not convinced of that. Think back to the Barkan reading that offered all those different ways to conceive of ‘law.’ I’m much more in the law affects society and society affects law camp rather than the ‘traditional view of law.’ I may not have convinced you that law is not above/apart from society, but that would partially explain why public opinion matters.


    1. While my intent was not to suggest that the law is separate from society, I believe whole heartedly that the law has its foundation in the needs of society. I think I wasn’t able to clarify the idea/connection I made in my head between how the protestors and crowds view the legal process and the steps that are required in punishing those who break laws. In the vast amount of strange connections my mind makes between things I was making a connection to the surge of emotions that the city of Boston, and the greater country, had in the time during the attacks at the Boston Marathon and how the public and the media essentially called for the perpetrator to be brought to justice and how the communities of Baltimore, Staten Island, Ferguson, and more call for justice with each death that sparks protests and riots.

      In the news coverage of the anger it seems that the people as a whole have little knowledge of the legal process to obtaining the justice they see fit. While I am not calling uneducated, or ignorant of the legal process, I think that the emotions raised during the before mentioned events can cloud the patience of the public to wait for the legal process to occur. And from this mix of emotions it can lead to the public determining the fate they see fit for those who take a life, whether they have all the information in each case or not. From this incomplete information and jumping to judgements I think that the process of the public essentially sentencing those charge before their appearance in court can effect the mind of those who eventually will serve on a jury for these cases, and limit the goal of the legal system to provide a fair trial to all citizens.


  2. I am going to actually take a stance in opposition to your second comment, Amanda. While I agree with you on the point that emotions have a tendency to cloud judgment, I do not think that is necessarily a bad thing. The loss of life and the various discriminatory practices that have been taking place against the black community are astounding, and I think that people have a right to get upset. Should the public allow that emotion to materialize in the form of destruction of a city? I will never advocate for that. However, I can’t say that I blame them, necessarily. I do not believe that they should sit around and wait for the legal system to run its course because a large part of the reason that there are so many protests is that the legal system has a tendency to be unjust–especially toward those in the black community.

    I would argue also that rather than the public going with the media frames in cases such as Michael Brown and Freddie Gray that the public is indeed pushing AGAINST the typical frames. I think they are trying to rid the media of their taints of racist footage but it has resulted in the media pushing back by labeling them as “rioters” and “thugs”. Additionally, an “eye for an eye” is the outcry because it is not what has taken place. There is no balance. A black man kills a white man, life sentence. A white man kills a black man, oops? I think the public is fully justified in their attempts to sway the legal system to listen to them.


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