Critics of mass incarceration and American punitiveness have called for a renewed focus on human dignity. They have proposed ways to make sanctions less severe and to ensure that punishments are more humanely administered. Attention to human dignity, however, also requires something else: greater attention to the humanity of offenders at the sentencing proceeding. Sentencing now is often a routine, unreasoned affair; even draconian sentences are sometimes imposed with little or no explanation of the goals they are meant to serve. Respect for dignity demands more than this. Judges should explain, in terms defendants can understand, the State’s legitimate purposes for requiring them to suffer the burdens of punishment. They must explain not only the factual and legal grounds for a sanction, but the State’s lawful objectives. By giving reasons, judges can affirm that offenders remain rational moral agents and members of the human community, not merely animals to be caged. Such public acknowledgment of offender dignity is morally important, but it also serves a practical purpose, for reason-giving helps ensure that sentences reflect legitimate aims, not unthinking fiat, error, or prejudice.

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