There’s very little about any modern system of criminal justice which isn’t controversial. Even cautiously suggesting something like “Crime is bad and it would be good if there were less of it” raises questions about what should constitute a crime, and how good a job the current state of our laws is doing at representing the things we consider socially unacceptable.
One way to reduce crime, as well as to stop people from doing unquestionably criminal things, is to stop labelling certain things people do as “criminal”. In the case of, say, murder, the latter option isn’t really practical; on the other hand, homosexuality and blasphemy have both been considered crimes deserving of harsh punishment in the past, but are widely agreed to be acceptable today.
But even when it comes to acts that we all agree cannot be socially condoned, there are major disagreements in how to respond.
One primitive view of what our criminal justice system is for is that it’s for punishing bad people. A slightly more sophisticated approach might suggest that it’s for punishing people for doing bad things. But if this is really our deepest goal, then the criminal justice system’s implicit intent, regardless of its motivations, is to make things worse.
You stole someone’s wallet? We’re going to steal several years of your freedom. Same if you violently attack someone in the street. If you go far enough, we might even kill you. We’re also doing bad things, but only to people who deserve it, because of the bad things they did.
Obviously this isn’t how we want to see ourselves. We’re acting as noble moral arbiters, stamping out evil in others where we find it. We’re making the world better.
So, maybe the criminal justice system should in fact be for minimising the number of bad things that people do.
You can see why punishing bad people seems to follow from here. It’s an intuitively obvious way of preventing them from doing bad things. If someone does something bad and gets punished, they’ll want to avoid being punished again, so they won’t do so many bad things. It’s one of the most important things we can think of to teach our children. Fear of punishment will also stop many bad things from being done in the first place. Whether it’s flogging, incarceration, or death, people will presumably adapt their behaviour to make sure it doesn’t happen to them.
But just because we’ve had one obvious idea, and it seems to have some merit, that’s no reason to just stop thinking. Are there other things we could do besides punishing criminal acts, which would reduce the amount of bad things people do?
It’s widely accepted that there are. Some of them are pretty far outside the box. But if the only reason we want to punish people is to reduce crime, then we have to consider other things that might also reduce crime.
It’s possible, I suppose, that we have some other reason for wanting to punish people who commit crimes. Maybe it’s fun for us, or we just can’t stand the idea of people who do bad things not suffering any vengeance for it. But that doesn’t sound like something we’d want to accept. We’d be kidding ourselves that our motives were in any way noble and good, if that were the case. We’re not sadists. We only want to punish people when there’s a useful purpose to it.
This is something that’s often lost sight of. Whenever those who make or enforce the law talk about crackdowns or zero-tolerance policies, against criminal behaviour that’s out of control, the justifications are expected to be self-evident. But the leap of logic leaves an important gap. These harsher policies against crime depend on the idea that resolutely cracking down will reduce the amount of crime.
Is that true?
Well, a lot of the time, it seems like you’re not even supposed to ask the question. The way politicians often talk about it, we’re encouraged to make a direct link from our abhorrence of a crime to a demand for harsher retribution, and skip over the question of whether anything will actually be improved by such a policy. In many cases, it evidently won’t be.
Put aside any kneejerk reaction against the idea of criminals getting some kind of “free ride” for a moment. For certain crimes, the numbers clearly show that sending someone to jail makes them more likely to commit more crimes in the future when compared against other options. There are things that we know work better than jail for some offenders.
I’m sure a lot of people who insist on “no free ride” for criminal offenders are acting with society’s best interests at heart. But the fact is, a lot of the policies intended to make sure criminals don’t get a free ride do exactly the opposite of helping.
So, what’s more important: Satisfying our innate, emotional sense of what feels like enough punishment for wrong-doers, or actually reducing the amount of wrong that gets done, and looking at the data scientifically to figure out what will most effectively accomplish that?
To be continued tomorrow, once I’ve figured out exactly where I’m going with this.