The punishment instinct

Pretty much any crime news comes with website comments, forum threads, workplace discussions, letters to the editor, etc. calling for increasingly worse punishments. “Throw them under the jail!” “They need to make friends with a guy named Bubba.” “Can we just have them taken out and shot?” No matter your penal philosophy, we agree that some people are too dangerous to wander free in society. These calls for rough justice have always bothered me though, and a couple of years ago I started to figure out why.

First of all, we’ve tried that justice system before. 300 years ago, boys were hanged for stealing a handkerchief or an apple. Oscar Wilde was set to four years hard labor, a sentence that killed many men. We’ve moved away from that system for good reasons, not the least of which is to protect ourselves from its effects. Inflicting brutality on that scale is bad for us; we become coarser and more callous to human suffering in general. So we’ve adopted a system in which we incarcerate dangerous people for a while. As to why we incarcerate them–well, there are lots of different answers. To punish them, for one thing. (And prison sucks. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, and if you think otherwise, post a comment and we’ll hash it out.) To teach people a trade so that they can “go straight” once they’re released. To put inmates through therapy and rehabilitation so that they don’t reoffend. And if nothing else, to at least take them out of the community for a while so they can’t be a threat.

Notice something about this list? Punishment, teaching programs, rehabilitation, sentences–eventually they end. Unless someone is given life without parole, someday those thugs, thieves, and perverts are coming back to live with the rest of us. That means we–as a society and as individuals–have a stake in reducing recidivism (people commiting a new crime after being released). Note that this doesn’t require ANY particular sympathy for the offenders, certainly not the cartoony bleeding-heart pity that mostly exists in the fantasies of Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh. Wanting to stop recidivism just needs that we want to not be robbed, raped, attacked, or swindled.

We’re used to the “scales of justice” metaphor; extend that to the forces acting on offenders after release. On one side there’s the factors that made them commit crimes in the first place: poverty, thug mentality, abuse, the hand of Lucifer, mental illness, Scorpio rising, plain old evil nature, whatever. We want to weigh down the other side of those scales with influences  that make them want to remain honest citizens. And we know what those influences are: a place to stay, a job that can pay the bills, family and friends to care about, community support to resist addiction, cognitive tools to keep from slipping into old habits.

Increasing calls for post-release monitoring and restriction sates our instinct to make people keep paying for their crime, but it could come back to bite us. The beginning of this post discussed the death penalty in old English justice. When you hang men for petty theft, a thief has every reason to kill the victim–no witness that way. That’s one reason hanging laws were reformed. Right now we’re passing more and more laws to restrict where ex-cons can live and work. If someone gets out of prison to find that they can’t go live with their family, can’t get a job because no one’s hiring felons, can’t even go to the library to do a job search, they have a lot less reason to settle in to a stable life.


One thought on “The punishment instinct

  1. Don’t have anything to add other than agreement on all points, but maybe I can add something from my experience in the field. Back in Alaska I worked for the Department of Corrections, and while I was an office drone I still got exposed to the question of what’s the purpose of a correctional system a lot, and gave it some thought.

    The three pillars are Punishment, Protection, and Rehabilitation. Protection (keeping dangerous people where they can’t be dangerous) is usually overlooked or taken for granted. The public generally thinks Punishment is the real purpose, and Rehabilitation is something unimportant tacked on for show to appease a few particularly wonky bleeding-heart touchy-feely types. People working within the correctional system, even the desperately conservative, usually see Rehabilitation as the primary purpose, and Punishment as some kind of ancillary thing, partially for deterrence and mostly to appease the public.

    Unfortunately, Punishment is approximately as ineffective (as a deterrent) as is Rehabilitation (to reduce recidivism), but while it’s easy to get despondent at the low success rates in both cases, there has been progress over the centuries in both areas (more so in Rehabilitation).

    Where progress is really being made, however, is in Prevention. Most members of the public have this idea that crime is worse now than ever, but it actually moves on a 30-year cycle, and the baseline of that cycle has been dropping during the last century, largely due to efforts being made early in people’s lives. It’s not very pleasant to say it, but it’s still mostly true: with our understanding of psychology today, by time someone’s in jail, our best chances to keep them from being a career criminal are long past. Being better at prevention is more efficient but less impressive. So hopefully someday we’ll be better at the cure, too.

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