Time and Punishment

(attempting to) sensitize the numbers behind incarceration sentences

The United States is a representative democracy, according to Wikipedia. Citizens elect representatives to make laws on their behalf. However, that doesn’t mean the resulting law and its execution matches the desires of the people, as evidenced by a 2016 sentence for a student at Stanford University. Why? My hunch is that there’s a lack of meaningful engagement between Americans and the law they have agency to shape. Through research and prototyping, I investigated how one might create better engagement.

some context

This research was conducted for a graduate course examining the role of time in design processes. Requirements to stay relevant to this line of inquiry heavily influenced decisions throughout the project.

finding an angle of approach

To narrow the scope of my research, I focused on American millennials for their tendency to be less engaged in politics.

I interviewed millennials about their attitudes toward prison sentence lengths. To ease into the topic, I first asked about experiences they had being put in and/or putting others in time-out. Interviewees then gave their thoughts on the purpose of incarceration and how sentence lengths should be determined.

One question, “Do you think there’s a significant difference between a 10-year and 11-year prison sentence?”, garnered an intriguing response from all interviewees. They’d immediately say no, then retract their answer after a moment of consideration, realizing that many noteworthy experiences could occur within a single year.

The interviewees’ desensitization of prison sentences by numbers led me to wonder how time could be a tool to contextualize incarceration sentences.

I brainstormed a few solutions, such as replacing the abstract numbers representing sentence lengths with the experience of elapsed time passing as an empathy exercise. I realized that I could achieve a similar effect more efficiently with a timeline.

life timeline

I invited participants that I had not interviewed to map their lives on a timeline and then chart how long someone like them should be put in jail for various crimes.

First, they created a timeline of their own life with major life events from the present day to their passing away. They then used these major life events to demarcate their life into sections. For each section, participants listed things they might do in a typical week (e.g. going to work) and recurring significant events that might happen (e.g. family vacations).

Finally, they were asked to imagine that someone like them had committed a crime and was sentenced to prison, indicating on the timeline when the person should be released based on the charge.

Despite having a timeline full of life events to reference, participants only considered the landmarks of retirement and death when sentencing criminals. This resulted in them doling out much harsher punishments than current averages, even though they all thought they were being more lenient than the status quo.

When asked if the activity made prison sentences have increased or decreased meaning, participants stated that they felt apathetic toward the subject.


Why did participants who felt like they were going easy on criminals deal out harsher punishments?


Though my prototype failed to successfully build much empathy between those outside prison to those inside, it did show that event-based approach to representing incarceration sentences was understandable enough to easily interact with; numbers aren’t the only way to engage.