Rethinking Punishment: Human Rights in an Age of Mass Incarceration

Mixed Enrollment Class - UW

Projects linked to the Rethinking Punishment initiative work to share the stories of hope and redemption of people who have served or are serving long prison sentences, and to find new ways to frame problems of violence and mass incarceration in order to allow politicians and the public to consider meaningful reforms of the legal system.

In June 2016, Prof. Katherine Beckett and 3rd year law student Martina Kartman published a CHR-supported report, Violence, Mass Incarceration and Restorative Justice: Promising Possibilities, which describes innovative programs across the United States using restorative justice principles to address the harms caused by violent crimes and to divert people from prison.

In partnership with the Law, Societies, and Justice Program, the UW CHR also supports a unique mixed enrollment course which brings UW students and inmates together in the classroom at the Washington State Reformatory.

Watch this space for the latest news about this project!

This project will involve capturing on the life stories of people who have served or are serving long prison sentences. The stories from former inmates will provide an opportunity for viewers and listeners to learn how many people who committed crimes in their youth can nevertheless transform themselves and forge productive and meaningful lives once released. Shedding light on the process of transformation will help counter the popular perception that those convicted of crimes—and especially crimes of violence—are irredeemable. These stories will be disseminated to educators, policymakers, and the general public, and will help stimulate dialogue about the dramatic increase in the imposition of life sentences in the United States.

The Rethinking Punishment Radio Project

Exiled Part 1Sex offenders are the most reviled and abused criminals in prison. But eventually, most of them will get out. So, what happens next? This is part one of a two-part documentary series produced in partnership with the CBC Doc Project and Cited Podcast. On this episode, you’ll hear the story of Chris Dum, a doctoral student who rented a room in the The Boardwalk — upstate New York’s infamous ‘Sex Offender Motel.’ This episode includes an interview with Rethinking Punishment co-Director, Katherine Beckett, discussing how criminal justice policy and research has changed since the 1980s, and what a Trump presidency will mean for reform efforts. Names of the people, city and motel have been changed in order to maintain anonymity.


“Superpredators Revisited”: The first edition of the Rethinking Punishment Radio Project debuted on February 25, 2014, as the premier episode of the Cited Podcast. “Superpredators Revisited” tells the story of Jeff Coats, who  was 14 years old when he kidnapped David Grenier and stole his car in Tacoma, Washington. 20 years later, against the backdrop of shifting sociological perspectives on crime, punishment, and rehabilitation, Jeff and David reflect on this crime and how it changed their lives.

The exceptionally high rate of incarceration in the United States was generated in large part by laws that mandate lengthy prison sentences. Such laws were supported by politicians in the 1980s and 1990s, who were concerned about being perceived as “soft on crime.” Yet the costs of extremely long prison sentences are enormous, and prison populations are steadily aging. States across the country are reconsidering some of the policies that have fueled skyrocketing correctional costs, but the policies currently being adopted do not have the potential to meaningfully reduce prison populations. To do so, policies that mandate exceptionally long sentences for people convicted of violent crimes will have to be reconsidered. Yet discussions of violence do not often lend themselves to thoughtful reflection about the real meaning of justice in such cases. This project will explore alternative ways of framing the problem of violence that will help advance a public conversation about possible criminal justice reforms.
In partnership with the Law, Societies, and Justice Program, the UW CHR provides funds to support engaged instruction on human rights topics. In 2014-15 funds will support a mixed enrollment course, led by Professor Steve Herbert, in which students from UW study alongside prisoner participants in the University Beyond Bars at Washington State Reformatory in Monroe, WA.

Student reflections:

Despite falling crime rates across the United States, the number of people who have a criminal record has increased steadily. The Clean Slate Project was a collaborative, policy-driven research endeavor involving the University of Washington’s Center for Human Rights, the Racial Disparity Project, the Seattle Human Rights Commission, and various other community and civic organizations. Its goal was to improve our understanding of how best to increase ex-offenders’ access to housing and employment. Toward this end, research identified the barriers that limit ex-offenders’ ability to obtain apartments and jobs, and assessed the strengths and limitations of various policies intended to remedy this problem. This final report was shared with a broad range of stakeholders, including the Seattle City Council, the Seattle Human Rights Commission, the Seattle Office for Civil Rights, and other community groups.

Get to know the people leading this project

Professor Katherine Beckett

Professor Katherine Beckett is a Professor in the Law, Societies, and Justice Program and the Department of Sociology at the University of Washington. She received her Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1994. Her research analyzes the causes and consequences of legal changes and penal practices. She is the author of numerous articles and several books on these topics, including, most recently, Banished: The New Social Control in Urban America, published in 2010 by Oxford University Press.
Steve Herbert
Steve Herbert is Professor of Law, Societies, and Justice and Geography at the University of Washington. He has served as Director of the LSJ Program since 2010.  Professor Herbert is trained as a geographer (PhD, UCLA 1995).  He has authored numerous articles and books on the practices and consequences of urban policing strategies, much of which is based on ethnographic data he collected in Los Angeles and Seattle.  His interest in prison-focused research is inspired in large part by his work teaching inside the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe.
Martina Kartman
Martina Kartman is a second year student and Gates Scholar at the University of Washington School of Law. She is interested in healing alternatives to adversarial justice, and systemic policy work, rooted in and driven by grassroots social movements. Martina will work with Prof. Katherine Beckett, co-director of the Rethinking Punishment project, in spring 2016. She will conduct research that involves describing and analyzing two different restorative justice programs currently operating in the United States, each of which includes cases involving violence, has enjoyed significant institutional success, and may serve as a model for replication. Previously, Martina volunteered for UWCHR’s Unfinished Sentences project.
Anna Reosti2
Anna Reosti is a graduate student in the Department of Sociology. Anna’s research interests include punishment, stratification and housing policy. Anna will be conducting research for the Rethinking Punishment Project, which explores alternative ways of framing the problem of violence that will help advance a public conversation about possible criminal justice reforms. At the end of her RAship, Anna will produce a report that identifies the best methodology for conducting systematic research on this topic. Outside of her full time job as a Ph.D. student, Anna enjoys swimming and hiking around the Pacific Northwest.

Support the Project

To contribute to this project, please make checks payable to “University of Washington Foundation” with “Rethinking Punishment project” in the memo line. You can also give online at include a note in the “comments” field indicating that your gift is for the “Rethinking Punishment project”).

Send donations or inquiries to:

UW Center for Human Rights
Box 353650
Seattle, Washington 98195 / 206.685.3435

Advancing Human Rights at the Northern Border Project

Northern Border Project

OneAmerica and CHR released their report, “The Growing Human Rights Crisis Along the Northern Border,” at our release event on April 17, 2012 at the University of Washington’s Law School. The release culminated our year-long research partnership on this project. The report, which details three patterns of concern along the northern border, includes OneAmerica’s policy recommendations and CHR’s analysis of the human rights implications of U.S. Border Patrol’s actions as reported to us through 109 on-the-ground interviews with residents of Snohomish, Whatcom, and Skagit counties.

You can access the report in several ways:

  1. Download the full report (5MB PDF).
  2. Download the executive summary (2MB PDF).
  3. Download the interactive iPad version of the executive summary.
  4. You can also email us to request a hard copy of the report at Copies are subject to availability.
Volunteer photographer Alex Montalvo, OneAmerica staff member Kendra Anderson, and volunteer graphic designer August Aldebot-Green curated an exhibit of photographs taken during our research along the Northern Border. The photo exhibit was available during our release event and will be on display at the University of Washington’s Research Commons during July and August of 2012.
OneAmerica and the UW Center for Human Rights have created an innovative, sustainable partnership to bring human rights tools to the communities of Washington State. Together, OneAmerica and CHR are systemically documenting patterns of abuses in the Northern Border between WA and Canada stemming from the dramatically increased presence of Border Patrol personnel in the area since 9/11. These abuses include the Border Patrol’s participation as a first responder for 911 calls, a routine practice in some WA counties. One recent case involved the shooting death of a mentally impaired man at the hands of Border Patrol agents who responded to a call for emergency assistance.

Both organizations will publish a report with policy recommendations in 2012. The report will be released in a press conference held at the University of Washington. OneAmerica will subsequently conduct advocacy at the local and national level using recommendations from the report generated through this project with the aim of achieving strategic policy at all levels pertaining to National Security and Border Patrol allocations, the increase of which have led to greater presence without adequate training along the border.

Furthermore, we hope the community organizing, leadership development, and human rights documentation will help build local leadership in immigrant communities such that they can more effectively advocate for their civil and human rights.

Partnership with Seattle Human Rights Commission

The Center for Human Rights has been invited by the Seattle Human Rights Commission to collaborate on a number of initiatives in an effort to forge a long-term partnership between the two entities. We have attended Commission meetings and co-sponsored events hosted by the Commission such as the December 10, 2013 Seattle Human Rights Day and the June 18, 2014 panel discussion “Two Fish Too Many: The Implications of a Low Fish Consumption Rate.” UW CHR continues to explore the best way for the Center to use its resources and experts in an advisory capacity for the Commission. Additionally, we will continue to partner with the Commission to organize the December 10th International Human Rights Day celebration.

Two Fish Too Many Panel Discussion Seattle Human Rights Day 2013 Awardees

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