Crime and Punishment- Criminal Justice

During the time of Charles Dickens London had become a big city and crime was running rampant.  The cure was to make punishment so severe that it would deter the criminals from committing the crimes.  I believe that over a hundred crimes were punishable by death.  One of those crimes was pick pocketing!  In order to maximize the punishment and the deterrence there were public executions of the pick pockets.  These drew huge crowds because executions in this period of time were particularly grizzly.  There were no trapdoors.  No hoods.  The noose was placed around the neck while the victim stood on a large box and then the box was kicked away.  The poor devil kicked and struggled until he passed out and then slowly died.  The executions were very popular.

They were discontinued after a fairly short period of time though.  You can probably guess the reason.  Too many people were getting their pockets picked at the pick pocket hangings!

And that brings up the whole punishment problem.  We don’t do public hangings anymore and, in most of the “civilized world”, killing those who have run afoul of the laws is almost unheard of.  We have a euphemism now to make it seem rather quaint, capital punishment.

But punishment is still popular at lower levels.  With modern methods of discovering how the brain works we know that “punishment” is a very poor deterrent to anti-social behavior.

First of all we know from modern neuroscience (the study of how the human brain functions) that almost all decisions are made on a subconscious level and are an emotional reaction as a result of belief systems that have been developed over the life of the person.  Heredity and environment both impact the decision making, of course.

Indeed, it has been said that when a couple has the first child they know that the behavior is almost all due to the parenting skills that they either have or think they have.  When and if they have a second child they become sure that behavior is entirely the result of heredity!  But I digress.

The main point here is that we mostly make decisions and then try to support them with “facts”, statistics, quotations, examples, analogies etc.  This is crucial when trying to deal most effectively with aberrant and illegal behavior.  For instance, we know that the human brain continues to mature, on average, into the early twenties.  Even before the recent knowledge of the human brain, people have, intuitively, realized that it is not “fair” to treat “young people” as adults in the criminal justice system.  Allowances have been made for obvious mental deficiencies even though intelligence tests and screening by experts is a relatively subjective process.

Should the age of “responsibility” be raised from the present 16 to 18 year old to an older “bar”?

Should we take on the issue of punishment more vigorously?  After all most of the people we want to put into the steel bar hotel are a danger to themselves and others.   And there is also the issue of deterrence for those folks and others.   Can consequences of various kinds actually deter people from committing certain actions?  How did that work for the pick pockets in Dickens’ days?

So what is punishment?  Punishment is a punitive action where the person doesn’t have any control over the consequences.  Does that work for a definition?  Try to apply that to your childhood or parental history.   It has been said that most of our ideas about fairness, authority, government and justice are the result of our early childhood and the parenting we had.  What worked for you?  What kept you from running out into the busy street at an early age?  Did the “punishment” fit the “crime” in your salad days?  This is troubling and difficult but it is important if we are going to recommend what works to keep people from the stigma that gives them a lifetime sentence of almost impossible job access.

So the harshest penalty (punishment) is not the jail time but the conviction that becomes a huge determinant of whether the person can be a productive member of the society.

What can be done to address negative behavior short of a criminal conviction and have that both work and satisfy the “punishment” people?

Well, let us count the ways.

The most obvious way to do that or at least diminish the number of felony convictions is to reduce offenses that have been felonies to fines and alternative consequences.  Can the punishment people be satisfied with a system of fines and other measures as a substitute for a felony conviction affect?  Are we talking all non-violent crimes?  Big range there!  But we need to come to agreement or at least a discussion as to what offenses are covered.  Even though state law may be involved here we should at least realize the limits we can go to and what is possible.   As it stands now we try to make the punishment fit the crime with lighter sentences but the conviction still goes on the record and that is the real problem.   Even a light sentence and a conviction means a lifetime heavy burden.

Is there a possibility of a better and more justified expungement of the legal record?  Time and “good behavior” could be determinants.

Now, we have been talking in committee, up to this point, about treatment after conviction so I won’t go into that here but I am concerned about humane, effective, efficient and acceptable alternatives to jail/prison time.  I am just trying to lay out the case for avoiding jail/prison time AND keeping them out of “big house” as well!

Would negative reinforcement work for the punishment people?  This has been used for prevention and to change behavior.  It works like this.  This is where the person has some control over the consequences.  Example:  A person gets a big ticket for speeding.  They get the fine reduced and the violation taken off their record if they go to traffic school.  I think you can get the idea from this and see how it could be broadened for transgressions that are different than when you are driving your “hot” car.

We could go far afield and talk about full employment as prevention and deterrent to much of the offenses we have talked about but that is beyond the reach of this committee and my pay grade! It might also be useful to realize that we are talking about “street crime”.  About 100% of the cost of criminal behavior is from “white collar” crime and that only about one percent of the total budget for criminal justice in the country is for “white collar” crime.  This is a telling statistic.

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