Crime and Punishment

4 03 2015

The Offender

I’m done smacking myself down; now the justice system gets to smack me down some more. I get to see first hand how it doesn’t work. Crime and punishment is largely based on a faulty presumption that stiff penalties provide a deterrent. Sometimes that’s true. But the prisons are packed with people for whom it was only motivation to try harder not to get caught.

Apart from the deterrent fallacy, there’s the Old Testament idea of justice, that when someone violates the law they need to be punished for it. Even if there were extraneous circumstances (the classic case of the man who stole the loaf of bread because he or his family was starving) we hear that justice must be served. You do the crime, you do the time. Because no matter how sorry you are, no matter how determined never to do it again, you must be made to suffer for what you did. I wonder what good that suffering really does?

There’s a certain pitiless element of righteousness in the way our laws work. They call it “personal accountability”, and when someone makes a mistake they are told, “You should have thought of that before you committed the act.” This is not terribly helpful. We all share human failings, misunderstandings, muddle our way through a Sargasso Sea of circumstances that cloud our thinking and muddy our motives. An awful lot of people who wind up in the system would benefit far more from counseling and education. How often does poverty, ignorance, suffering and desperation drive people to make bad choices? The money we spend to incarcerate people could be so much better and productively spent getting those same people back on their feet and providing them options that don’t involve breaking laws and breaking up families. But a large element of our society gets all bent about “coddling criminals”. They’d rather spend tax dollars on prisons and militarizing the police, than on welfare, food stamps, or child care.

I was horrified by what I did, and have already taken constructive steps to make sure it never happens again. That, of course, is not enough in the eyes of the law. I need to bleed money my family can’t really afford and lose my license for six months, creating havoc and hassle for everyone around me. They are being punished for something they had nothing to do with. Some justice. And what good will it do? Keep me from doing it again? I was already determined never to repeat the mistake. All this does is screw things up more. I was so upset when they yanked my driver’s license that I wanted desperately to get drunk. I didn’t. I’m sticking to my resolution in spite of the penalty being levied on me, not because of it.

I’m fortunate in that I have a family and friends who are understanding, forgiving and supportive. What about the people who have to face their lives getting skewered without support like that? Do they lose their jobs because they can’t drive and can’t find a ride? Do they lose their homes because they can’t pay their bills? If they get sent to prison, how do they rebuild their lives afterwards? Especially if they come out worse off than when they went in. Unemployable. Stigmatized. No wonder so many people end up on the street. Or back in prison.

I will recover and move on. It’s been a trauma because I have never experienced anything like this before. I’ve always been on the “right” side of the law. But it has been an incredible learning experience. I now know how easy it is to end up on the “wrong” side. And I can see how people in much more difficult situations could slide into a nightmare. So many of our institutions are badly broken, and I’m not seeing much progress in trying to fix them. We keep cutting money from social programs that could catch people from falling into the desperation that leads to bad choices. We are destroying our public schools instead of using them to reach and help children in need. We criminalize homelessness, blame the poor for their poverty, legislate stiffer sentences. We punish instead of help.

The most effective way to fight crime is with wisdom. With compassion. With understanding. With research and science. Not with punishment. Are there criminals out there that need to be imprisoned? I expect so. But how did they come to be that way? Can their lives be turned around? Can we keep others from making those choices by giving them better options?

Until we begin to answer these questions, until we make society as accountable and responsible as we expect individuals to be, we will continue to have plenty of crime and not much justice.




3 responses

5 03 2015
Mary Jolles

I myself have always favored restitution, if possible, as a consequence before any other form of response to a wrong. At recess one year I heard one of my students in conversation with a child from another class: the other child had offered the information that a classmate was being punished by the teacher by missing recess, after having knocked over a chair. My student responded, “In our class, if we knock over a chair, Mrs Jolles makes us pick it up.” Of course, I have no idea how many times the classmate they were discussing had knocked over furniture, or for what reason, either accidental or on purpose, but I was pleased by my student’s answer.

One aspect of wrongdoing which is very difficult for authorities to pin down with any certainty is the likelihood of it happening again. We like to think we know or can tell, but time and again we are wrong. That leaves us falling back on what should the consequences be for a particular wrong? What is the outcome that we want? In some so-called primitive cultures, restitution for theft, murder or wrongful death is extremely important to the balance, even survival, of society. Western authorities who have barged in and set up more “modern” systems of justice for these cultures simply take the wrongdoer and throw them in jail, leaving the victim with no recompense and the wrongdoer’s family with no source of income! Some justice! Neither victim nor perpetrator is served.

5 03 2015

You are right, Mary. It makes much more sense for the person who has broken the law to try to make up for whatever harm his wrongdoing caused. Or take steps to assure it won’t happen again (as in get therapy for whatever habit or behavior caused the the problem). This makes far more logical sense than throwing the person in jail (or keeping him in from recess).

6 03 2015
Mary Jolles

You asked a question about criminals who must be imprisoned, I assume because of their danger to the public. This is such a difficult question. As a civilization we have yet to figure out what makes these individuals tick. Until we do, and learn how to change their behavior, they are going to have to remain behind bars. The “criminal” behaviors that concern me the most are the situations where restitution would be a much better solution all around than locking the person up where they have no chance to rectify the wrong they have done. White collar crime, especially in the world of banking, is not handled appropriately. Fines are levied, yes, but what is that cost to the bank compared to the profits the bank made that year? And how does this help the customers who lost all their savings due to the bank’s shady dealings? Shouldn’t the bank be forced to make right all they have done wrong?

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