To What Purpose?
by Phil Bartle, PhD
Our justice system does not have a cohesive or integrated policy or philosophy concerning the purpose and objectives of sentences given to convicted criminals.
What it has instead is a mishmash of three different objectives, which are not justified in the light of scientific research of human behaviour, and which are incompatible with each other. Those three purposes are (1) punishment, (2) rehabilitation and (3) warehousing.
Punishment is the purpose with the longest history. In most simpler societies, vengeance was the rule, and it was administered by the affected kin groups. With the formation of overriding governments, such as kingdoms, the application of punishment was taken from the affected families when the central government claimed a monopoly on the use of legitimate force, including wars and punishing criminals.
The king or crown (representing the central government) became the only institution with the right to commit murder, often by beheading, then hanging, the guillotine and the gas chamber. As punishment became more “humane” (an oxymoron), flogging and incarceration started to replace state murder.
What little research we have demonstrates that punishment does not work. Of course putting the perpetrator to death will ensure that s/he will not be able to commit further crimes, but that is like throwing the baby out with the bath water. Our model is often an unconscious reflection of old Hollywood western movies: there are Good Guys and Bad Guys. The world is not full of good guys and bad guys; there is good and bad in all of us. The main difference between us here in class and those in prison is that we have been able to avoid getting caught. By killing the criminal, the state destroys the good along with the bad.
Any lesser punishment, the infliction of pain and discomfort, appears to be justified by our collective emotional desire for vengeance, not by a cool scientific reasoning of the outcome. Criminals who have suffered as a result of their pain tend to develop increased feelings of resentment against the authorities and society as whole. Furthermore, while in prison, they live in a community of inmates with high levels of skills at committing crimes, and come out into society after completing their sentences having more skills and imaginations about possible further crimes. Incarceration encourages an increase in crime, not a reduction.
As with the Primary Health Care policy supported by WHO, prevention would be much cheaper in terms of financial costs and in terms of the pain and suffering of the victims and the punished criminal. Prevention would include many more services to children in harm's way. Politicians know, however, that most people in the general public do not think logically and reasonably about crime, often harbouring guilt feelings, and prefer the emotional thinking of vengeance instead of the reasonable solution of prevention. Since politicians seek to become re-elected, they tend to work for the short run, politically expedient policies, rather than genuine, if temporarily unpopular, solutions.
We hear talk about “letting the punishment fit the crime.” This, too, is not well thought out. If a man rapes a women, should he be punished by being raped? Who should carry out the inflicting of that punishment? (If he is pretty enough he might get raped in prison). Or, in contrast, should he be disarmed? (Skinners would be in danger of being "piped" in general prison population). It is well known that a prison sentence also means a sentence of being raped on the inside, or of being forced to become the sweetheart of someone with more power, in protection against being raped indiscriminately. That is punishment received by inmates who look “pretty” to other inmates, not to everyone.
The second objective, rehabilitation, is rather idealistic in concept, again not supported by the science.
First let us discard the prefix “re” in the word. It implies returning to a previous condition. The prefix implies that the perpetrator was pure and clean before committing the crime, and the action by the state is intended to bring the person back. No one is pure or clean, and many of those in our prisons today experienced a childhood of violence and abuse such that their later committing of crimes was a certainty. The word “habilitation” would be more accurate.
In the many decades if not centuries that the concept has been floating around, no one has yet devised a programme to habilitate criminals. Recidivism, the rate of returning to prison after release, is high, and almost 100 per cent sure if the criminal is a drug addict. One crime that tends to have a low rate of recidivism is murdering a spouse in anger, but there are still public cries of jail time for the perpetrator. The University of Victoria programme of providing education in penitentiaries (later taken over by SFU), from literacy through university levels, had a high success in lowering recidivism, but not with drug addicts.
Habilitating a criminal will probably involve learning, and finding ways to improve self esteem. Some crimes may require other elements. Paedophilia, the sexual molestation of children, appears to be incurable, so habilitation appears to be impossible. Paedophilia comes in two varieties, (1) those who love and do not wish to harm children and see sex with them as an acceptable form of affection, and (2) those who desire to practice violence over helpless or vulnerable victims, where the child usually ends up dead. Few people in society make that distinction. Such criminals are labelled “skinners” by other inmates, are located at the bottom of the inmate social hierarchy, and need to be protected against violence and murder by other inmates. Habilitation would obviously take very different forms for those two kinds. Bank robbers, in contrast, tend to have very high opinions of themselves, relating themselves to Robin Hoods, and usually enjoy being at the top of the inmate social hierarchy. Like drug addicts, these people appear to be addicted to their own adrenaline produced by the action, and are very likely to commit similar crimes after release.
Most sociologists and psychologists see that the motivating factor in rape is not libido, the desire for sex, but is a desire to exercise power. Part of that is an extension of our gender socialization, and part is the failure of the perpetrator to achieve a sense of worth in society, seeking illegitimate forms of power in compensation. Habilitation would be wrong in using things like shock treatment to diminish libido when the source of the problem is not libido.
The conclusion is that different crimes are committed by different persons for different purposes, and we toss them all into the same iron hotel, and give them similar experiences, when very different treatments are obviously necessary if they are to be successfully habilitated.
It is idiotic if not impossible to combine habilitation with punishment. No one can learn while punishment is administered, especially learning to have a higher self esteem. The resentment and pain will preclude that.
The term “warehousing” simply means storing inmates until their sentence is complete, neither punishing them nor trying to habilitate them. By definition it is incompatible with the other two. It is justified by the desire to keep these people off the streets, and “protect” society by ensuring their absence. Where it fails in logic is that most sentences are for finite periods of time, and those sentenced will eventually be released. They will have learned new skills and new negative feelings against the authorities and against society in general.
No matter what the purpose of a criminal sentence, it will fail where the inmate gets mixed messages and contradictory experiences. That is what we provide today.
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