I regret to inform you that you and your loved ones are to be crime victims. What sort of crime 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, and what kind of crime do we want? Given our penal system, ‘No more crime’ is the least likely outcome.
The question we have never addressed is, Do we want the same criminal, or a worse criminal? Because the only sane option to my mind should be, Do we want a better human being? Because that last is one which we as a society have not considered.
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.
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 about 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. 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, a wergild. As we have seen, however, it can produce a worse criminal. We could lock them 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, 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 the 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.
Picture of crime scene tape courtesy of Wikimedia.org.