Archive for January, 2012

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.

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This five-year-old is being outrageously sexualised by bloggers and journalists. That’s according to her mother, who dressed the kid up like Julia Roberts from Pretty Woman for a show called Toddlers & Tiaras, and got her to sing a song called Sexy And I Know It at a nightclub.

– Here’s a graphic which I’d say represents the relative contributions to society made by these people completely fairly.

– “Imagine what we could accomplish” if, like the President suggests, we followed the example of US troops.

– There has to be a better portmanteau available for this than the clunky “sexapocalypse“. Suggestions?

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Nazis, elsewhere

The action’s over on my Other blog tonight, where I’m asking important questions like: Were the Nazis really so bad?

By the time Jews were having their property confiscated as a matter of official policy, they had been successfully othered in the minds of enough Europeans that the Nazis could proceed with their “Final Solution” without any significant uproar.

It was this sort of euphemistic jargon, coupled with all the dehumanising psychological techniques brilliantly employed before and throughout the War, by which people could avoid having to directly address – or even think about – the murder of millions of individuals to which it referred.

Nobody involved in the Third Reich needs to have been an inhuman monster to achieve this. They only made clever use of a number of aspects of human behaviour, of the shameful ways in which we are naturally inclined to act if the circumstances are right.

You should read the whole thing.

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– Newt Gingrich knows what’s wrong with US drug policy: not enough people are being killed for carrying handfuls of marijuana.

Thirteen Observations made by Lemony Snicket while watching Occupy Wall Street from a Discreet Distance.

Nice analysis of a picture which has apparently been doing the rounds lately, being used to suggest that Obama, unlikely his Republican counterparts, is a down-to-earth man of the people. Uh-huh.

– One school in New York has seen a bizarre spate of a rare medical condition among its students, involving tics similar to those characteristic of Tourette Syndrome. They’re investigating the possibility of some kind of chemical poisoning or memetic virus that will enslave humanity.

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So it was National Gay-Straight Alliance Day recently, and as has started to feel like an increasingly regular occurrence lately, I had to go and find some way to oppose this perfectly sensible effort to foster acceptance and compassion.

I haven’t followed the campaign and its associated activities much, so I don’t really know how people spent the day who were noting it. It’s not like there isn’t work for LGBT equality that needs to be done, and I’ve no doubt that a lot of people in “gay-straight alliances” are doing it well.

But the way it’s framed seems misjudged to me. It makes it sound like Gay and Straight are the only two camps available, and that they’re momentarily putting aside their grievances and forming a truce, despite the unavoidable distinction that will always exist between them.

Which I’m sure isn’t what they’re really trying to imply; the actual details on the site do talk about other groups beyond “Gay”, and suggest that their principles should apply “regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity”. It just doesn’t seem like reinforcing the illusion of a strictly binary system of sexuality is something you’d want to do right in the name of your organisation, if all sexualities deserve equality.

Am I being too picky? Obviously I applaud the fundamental intent behind what I suspect most people involved in a GSA are trying to do – promulgate love and compassion, put an end to bigotry based on superficial differences – just like I support the basic sentiment behind liberal drives for higher taxes on the rich – greater rewards and social support for the less well-off labourers and the disadvantaged. But I find myself being rubbed the wrong way by the particular method of marketing tolerance in these “alliances”.

And I can’t stand it when gay people rub me the wrong way.

(I’m so sorry.)

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– Obama’s got some good plans for the country, and I’m sure it’ll work out well. This time.

Rod Liddle wants to become disabled. A less kind observer might offer to help him out with that.

– If you’re only as vaguely aware of the caste system in place in India as I generally am, this article will be fascinating to you.

Probably the best thing I’ve read on the government’s ongoing crusade against the outrageous sums of money being offered to benefits claimants.

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A couple of weeks ago, a particularly intellectual and astute Muslim totally destroyed some heretics’ arguments with his superior powers of logic and deduction. Before they’d even spoken, he conclusively demonstrated that the facts were entirely on his side, and that any rebuttals made by the non-believers would necessarily be false.

By which I mean he threatened them and had a debate cancelled.

Still, I’m sure they were all persuaded. I’m sure that everyone there who might have believed something derogative of the holy Prophet Muhammad – say, that he had multiple wives and had sex with at least one pre-pubescent child – now realises that it’s not true, for the obvious reason that if they were to say that it’s true then they might be violently attacked. To still believe the truth of such a fact, even in the furthest recesses of one’s mind, would be an affront to reason.

So, well done, Islamists with no interest in debate or discovery but who are willing to attack and harm others for crimes of thought. You won in a way that really matters.

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