Design your criminal: should incarceration generate criminal rehabilitation, or dehabilitation? What does justice mean if it doesn’t make us safer?
I regret to inform you that you and your loved ones are to be crime victims. Fortunately, what sort of crime you suffer is your choice: breaking and entering, automobile theft, armed robbery, physical assault, sexual assault, murder.
You might prefer ‘None of the above,’ but we have effectively taken that one off the table. Because, just like our Dark Ages concept of education, we have a Dark Ages concept of justice.
Which means we’re working in the dark.
When a man commits a crime – most violent criminals are men – and we apprehend, convict, and jail him, we as a government answer an unasked question: After he gets out, What kind of criminal do we want? Or perhaps more specifically, What kind of crime do we want? Given our penal system, ‘No more crime’ is an unlikely outcome.
We face three questions: Do we want the same criminal we sent to jail? Do we want a worse criminal than we sent to jail, effectively dehabilitation?
Or, Do we want a better human being coming out of jail? That is one which we have not discussed.
Consider that many criminals are illiterate. Few have any useful education. In many prisons, particularly those that house the worst offenders, the brutality inside often schools them to become worse criminals. If they join a prison gang, when they get out they have a ready-made syndicate waiting for them. It is criminal dehabilitation.
For the rest of them, they have a criminal record, and few marketable skills. Who’s going to hire them? And the strict conditions of a parole make it very hard for them to keep from being sent back.
No money, no job, no education, almost no options. Forget the criminal: What would you do?
Einstein supposedly said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” He probably didn’t say that, however. But even if he had, I have problems with it. Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result can also be practice. And experiment. And learning.
And it’s not necessarily insanity. Or rather, when it is it’s garden-variety, normal insanity. In fact, that may be the definition of normal insanity, not paying attention to what’s happening around us. We all do it.
What we do, instead, is to look at problems through our filters. On the one side, conservatives want tough punishment. They want gut-level vengeance, the same thing neolithic and bronze age peoples wanted: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. They want a wergild. As we have seen, however, simple retribution rarely improves things, and it can make our situation worse by producing dehabilitation and a worse criminal. We could lock criminals up permanently, of course. That’s a conservative $30K/year, or over $1M over 40 years, per prisoner. And that’s before they start aging and need medical treatment.
We could start executing them all, of course. But I don’t think we want to go back to hanging people for stealing a loaf of bread.
Liberals, on the other hand, can become swayed by pity and sympathy, and make decisions that are unhelpful in the other direction. Too often liberal approaches can give us back the same criminal we sent in.
Those of us in the middle, those of us who want pragmatism, should be Missourians: Show me. Show me the options, show me the data, show me what reduces crime down the road. Because to my mind, that requires that we focus on generating a better human being at the end of his sentence.
The central problem with criminal justice, and with our partisan debates in general, is that we don’t look down the road. We aren’t interested if our ideas work. Our pre-scientific, medieval mindset has trapped us in a set of decisions that do not help, and often make the problem worse.
Publicity graphic of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange courtesy of Warner Brothers Films. All rights reserved.