How punishment works

Jenna Ryan, who joined the Capitol insurrection on January 6, is putting a an upbeat spin on serving 60 days in federal prison for trespass. She’s announced on TikTok that she plans to exercise, do a lot of

yoga, eat healthy food, and lose roughly 30 lbs.

I’m not sure this is the typical prison experience.

Ryan hitched a ride from Texas on a friend’s private plane to attend the Trump rally, then got caught up in the moment. Initially, she denied any involvement, but there’s so much video! Then, she announced–on TikTok, that her white skin and blonde hair would keep her out of prison. Ulp. It’s dangerous to say the quiet part out loud.

Then she took a plea and apologized, sort of. Prosecutors intend to seek harsher sentences in trials, and there are plenty of pictures of people doing far more damage. Sometimes, it’s smart to cut your losses.

The judge was clear that he meant to make an example of Ryan. This makes sense. It’s not clear that she is on the verge of intruding on another Capitol, and there isn’t much sign that she’s going to learn a lesson of any kind. Punishment is about another audience–a broader American public.

At base level, sending Ryan–and hundreds of others–to prison for trying to overthrow the government–is about showing America that violent overthrow of the government isn’t okay. By showing would-be insurgents that invading the Capitol is risky. It’s disappointing to note that this message needs to be sent: at least a few of the invaders were astonished that they would pay a price for their efforts. Trump didn’t go with them and won’t help them.

Capitol police are shown using pepper spray and tear gas

Punishment also sets the boundaries of acceptable conduct, drawing lines between politics and crime. In principle, the law is supposed to draw lines based on conduct, not belief. That police, courts, and the government more generally have often fallen short of this aspiration doesn’t destroy the worth of this goal.

Punishment also draws lines between criminals and deviants and more mainstream politics and society. Effective punishment requires imposing costs–prison and fines–serious enough to send the message and separate criminals from dissenters–without punishing so severely to create martyrs.

Mostly, mainstream politicians have shied from publicly supporting the Capitol insurgents.

But we’re still in early stages. We’ve seen plea bargains so far. Next year will bring criminal trials for others determined to use the courtroom as a stage to announce their support for Donald Trump, claiming that their intense loyalty is, by itself, justification. They will raise money for criminal defense–and who knows what else–on that basis.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) speaks at a news conference at the U.S. Capitol Building on December 07, 2021 in Washington, DC. Greene, Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ), Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), and Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) held the press conference to describe the alleged treatment of January 6th defendants in DC jail

Already, an insurgent group of four Republican representatives has held a press conference decrying the cruel treatment that the Capitol invaders have suffered. It’s hard to think that most Republicans want to be represented by Matt Gaetz, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Paul Gosar, and Louie Gohmert, but criticism from within the caucus has been muted. Republicans need to step up.

Gaetz and Greene plan to run for reelection in extremely safe Republican seats–and Gosar hopes for the same. Gohmert is running for higher office in Texas, where a Democrat was last elected to state-wide office decades ago.

The future of the American republic rides on where the line between acceptable dissent and crime is drawn. Courts will need to do their part, but we need to watch how many Republicans are willing to cross that line.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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