Post No.: 0136
Preventing crime (whether at the grassroots level or increased police presence, for instance) is better than attempting criminal correction after a crime has been committed, but sometimes prevention fails because we don’t want an overly suppressed and stifled society of individuals who are so lacking in freedom that it’d be practically impossible for anyone to commit any crime (although some will argue that a crimeless world would constitute part of the definition of a utopia. This shows that it can be a fine or totally subjective line between what’s considered a utopia or dystopia).
So what good does punishing people do? An argument against punishment is that it causes harm, and adding more harm cannot undo existing or previous harms. But an argument in support of punishment is that even though the above is true, we need to deter future harms from either happening in the first place or repeating, hence appropriate punishments will overall in the long-term and bigger picture reduce total harm in society. This latter argument depends on the empirical evidence regarding whether such punishments actually deter people from committing or repeating crimes though.
Is the purpose of punishment retribution or to deter crime and recidivism, or a bit of both? If it’s to deter crime or recidivism then the prison system, in its form today in many countries at least, largely empirically fails to achieve this goal. Maybe in countries where private prisons are used or where other portions of the justice system are privatised and for-profit – the equation ‘more inmates and recidivism equals more repeat business, profit and shareholder value’ doesn’t help matters? But even in many other countries, 100% state-run justice systems largely empirically fail to deter crime or recidivism too. Maybe incarceration time for relatively petty crimes is because prisoners provide cheap labour for the local government? Yet this doesn’t make financial sense because stealing something worth ¥300 could land a person two years in prison, which might cost the system hundreds of thousands times more! (Indeed, many lonely Japanese pensioners with low state pensions, as of writing, commit petty crimes in order to go to prison because it’s free accommodation, food and care for them!)
A retributivist view believes that if a person deserves punishment then that’s enough reason to punish them according to principle regardless of the consequences – but in some cases punishment doesn’t seem necessary or right e.g. someone stealing a bit of food because he/she was starving, someone taking drugs because he/she is struggling to quit that drug, or punishing a mentally ill person or someone who was themselves a victim of abuse. Wouldn’t helping these people be more morally appropriate? Wouldn’t the intentionality of the crime matter too? Do two harms make a good?
A utilitarian consequentialist view believes that punishment is necessary if and only if it’ll improve overall social utility – but if maximising overall social utility is the overriding goal then would it therefore be acceptable to punish innocent people or people before they’ve committed a crime to deter them from committing a crime? Would it be acceptable to apply disproportionate punishments, or to treat different people differently, if this’ll serve the greater consequential good? Well that’s what would be allowed if the ends justify the means (i.e. if it doesn’t matter how one gets the result – just get the result). So is what’s best overall for society fair for each and every individual in it in all cases?
Most people therefore subscribe to a hybrid of the above views i.e. that moral desert (deservedness) is central, as is proportionality and equal treatment, and if these three constraints are satisfied then we should only punish people if doing so produces good consequences for society overall; and this will include measures that will help to prevent criminals from repeating their crimes if this will have good consequences for society overall. This stance is easy to state on paper as an armchair critic of philosophical or political ideas though (as it is far easier to be an armchair critic of anything compared to being someone who’ll actually try to put something into realisation!) – the details of such a system when put into practice are still debateable and often dilemmatic (e.g. what’s considered ‘proportional’, or what correctional methods will work to prevent criminals from committing crimes again in the future at the same time as still being a punishment for them? And then how would all this be funded and regulated?) It’s 1% idea, 99% execution, or it’s 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration, as some sayings go.
Monetary fines or community service don’t seem appropriate or sufficient for some crimes, and capital punishment seems too severe for others (many or most people in the world today believe that the death penalty is too severe for virtually any crime). Besides, states that employ capital punishment don’t really have lower rates of crime compared to states that don’t. The external threat of punishment doesn’t seem to deter people as much as their own internal sense of right and wrong, which is largely developed early in life (e.g. being raised with moral lessons versus the attitude of ‘winning at any cost’). So a typical modern punishment is prison time, which takes away many of the freedoms of inmates for a period of time.
But convictions continue to have an affect on people’s lives after they’ve paid their time in prison i.e. they stay on people’s records and affect e.g. their ability to apply for certain financial products or benefits, their voting rights, their future employment prospects (even if the jobs are completely unrelated to the offences committed) – and this makes it hard for such people to reintegrate back into the community, which affects not only them but their families and communities too i.e. it creates a vicious cycle.
Prison can be psychologically brutal and is usually quite costly in monetary terms too – it could be said that the cost of keeping an inmate in prison would actually be better spent on paying for a university education for them, which would be better at producing a productive and law-abiding citizen once they complete their term! However, we don’t want to reward and therefore incentivise crime i.e. people who cannot (or even can) afford a university education committing a crime just to have their higher education paid for them by the state! We still want to punish crime. So there’s a tension between punishment and correction in a hybrid system that seeks both.
Some strongly argue that short prison sentences (those under 6 or even 12 months long) do no good for anyone because they’re long enough to damage reputations, and offenders will have likely already lost their jobs, homes and relationships when they get released, yet they aren’t long enough to rehabilitate them, hence the huge recidivism rate of people who are given such sentences. Holding each inmate in prison costs public money too, and whilst in prison they might connect with some unsavoury characters who’ll further their criminal life! So, with some exceptions, they suggest some form of community sentence for such offences instead. Yet others counter with an argument against being too soft on criminals.
Ultimately, in countries like USA at least, prison has consistently shown to be ineffective in deterring crime, based on the amount of crime present regardless of the amount of inmates present. The US has a disproportionately large prison population. This may suggest that crime cannot be assumed to be carried out by rational acts? Or alternatively, the potential proceeds of crime (in status and/or wealth) are so relatively great compared to a person’s other perceived options that prison is still not enough of a deterrent for them? This would be truer for those from low socio-economic backgrounds who lack social mobility (and maybe also on the other side – those who work amongst a lot of money where the temptation of fraud could net a person millions of dollars, and where ‘white collar’ crimes aren’t punished as often or as greatly as ‘blue collar’ crimes, thus making attempting such financial frauds a rational act, depending on a person’s personal risk appetite).
So some people who commit crimes may still think the potential benefits of committing crimes outweigh the risks and costs of them going to prison – maybe because they perceive they have no real better options in their lives elsewhere i.e. there’s something systematically wrong with society that’s stacked against or failing for some groups of people in society. If so, it cannot be moral to punish such people in such situations for what they do because it’s not sufficiently their own fault – when we see systematic patterns, it likely means that something’s wrong with the overall system somewhere (e.g. the system is stacked against some groups in particular, such as the poor, racially discriminated or otherwise marginalised).
Restorative justice is therefore being experimented as an alternative to incarceration – this form of justice emphasises repairing the harm caused by criminal behaviour, via cooperative processes that involve all stakeholders. This can lead to reduced recidivism for the criminals as well as better closure for the victims, which repairs relationships in the community and therefore, in turn, is better for the community in the long-term i.e. it attempts to break that vicious cycle. The idea is that punishment is justified if and only if it promotes restoration. This can be achieved via apologies to the victims, repentance, mediation, drug courts, access to mental health services, repaying losses to victims to indemnify/make them whole again if possible, addressing the emotional aspects of both victims and perpetrators after a crime, and the reintegration of the perpetrator as a contributing and respected member of society.
Whether restorative justice deters potential offenders (as in those who’ve never offended before but might in the future) is yet unknown, but it does seem to reduce recidivism from previous offenders better than traditional prison systems (which might not be a high bar to beat but hey!) However, restorative justice isn’t appropriate for all types of crime and it does require the input of the victims and they might not want to go ahead with it under their own freedom to decide.
It’s not easy trying to balance the ‘hard’ with the ‘soft’, or the deontological (‘it’s the action or principle that matters most’) with the consequential (‘it’s the result that matters most’), whilst avoiding potentially dystopian outcomes. And criticising or merely stating what we want or should do is easy – actually putting things into practice and running a civilised country is not!
So many different countries struggle with this problem of punishment for a reason(s), and the more one carefully studies it, the more one gets to understand the complexities, dilemmas, practicalities and potential side-effects that dampen any hubristic or oversimplistic black-or-white views. Some things will work in some countries better than others. Some things might seem bad but the alternative might be even worse rather than better. Things often only seem easy when one doesn’t understand enough about them. As a generality in these topics of discussions, you can tell who knows more – and it’s counterintuitive because it’s not the person with more answers than questions but the person with more questions than answers. If everything looks clear and simple – you likely haven’t looked far and wide enough. This applies to most other political, social and economic issues too. So to think one, or one’s side, personally has all the perfect and universal solutions is probabilistically arrogant. Of course, one might truly have a good and/or unique idea that hasn’t been tried before – nonetheless, the truly wise and knowledgeable share and discuss without arrogance.
Woof. Using the Twitter comment button below, please tell us what your views are on the subject of crime and punishment? And as a thought experiment, would a world where it’d be impossible for anyone to commit a crime be a utopia or dystopia?