Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Jails, No - Beatings, Yes

[A classic from the archives as I unbury myself from deadlines too-long deferred.]

In spite of what is taught at universities or online schools for criminal justice, I stand by the belief that jails and prisons are largely useless, and most should be closed.

There are two things we can do with someone who violates social norms by committing crimes. If the crimes are sufficiently vile that society can never re-accept the individual, then the individual has to go away. That can be death or life imprisonment or exile. In any case, there is no need for rehabilitation; society is rejecting and expelling the person, not trying to fix them. If we decide not to kill these people (I can't imagine why we would make that decision, but apparently other people feel differently), then we will need to keep some prisons around to warehouse them until they die of natural causes.

Those folks are a fairly small minority of all criminals, of course. For the people whose crimes are of a lesser magnitude, we want to do five things. First, we want to provide a disincentive for that particular individual to engage in the same act - "knock that off!". Secondly, we want to deter other people who may think that engaging in that act is a rational course of action - "don't be like Bill". Third, we want to be as fair as is reasonably possible in matching the severity of the punishment to the severity of the crime. Fourth, we want to rehabilitate the offender - to convince them to change the course of their life. Fifth, we want to satisfy the sense of justice of the community so that they continue to buy in to the social order we have established. If they don't feel justice is done, they will withdraw their support for the instrumentalities of justice and simply take care of business themselves. That's not an entirely undesirable outcome (direct democracy!) but we have collectively decided that it's better to have cops and courts than lynch mobs.

Prison is not entirely worthless at these tasks, but it is not very good at them. It often fails the first two tests - it is not a strong disincentive or deterrent. Being in prison isn't fun and games but it is often not much worse than the offender's basic milieu. When you live in purgatory, a trip to Hell isn't something you tremble at. Prison almost always fails the fairness test. Prison rape, gang violence, all the rest of it - these things make the actual prison experience brutally unfair. You go in for burglary and you get sodomized daily for three years and you emerge a broken shell; you go in for mass murder and your gang buddies lionize you and you emerge meaner and more antisocial than you entered.

Prison utterly fails the rehabilitative test; there are individual exceptions but in general a coerced, violent and thuggish environment is the worst possible background for education or counseling. About the only thing prison does even slightly well is the sense of justice; "he's rotting in that hellhole and that's where he should be" is satisfying to enough people to maintain support for the system.

So the prison system is not very good overall at its job for the non-expelled-from-society felons. What could we replace it with?

I would suggest the whipping post and the lash. Consider: direct physical pain is a profound disincentive for most people, soccer moms and gang-bangers alike; living in a rundown slum is no vaccine against getting the hell beat out of you. Seeing your friends come off the post weeping is a lot more of a deterrent than seeing them strut out of jail, well-fed, with a cell phone full of new gang contacts. It would be much fairer and much easier to fine-tune punishments to crimes; three stripes is three stripes, and you aren't going to be forcibly sodomized, or not, as part of the bargain. The lash would satisfy the sense of justice of the community at least as well as jail.

It provides no direct rehabilitation, of course - but it does trigger the very powerful and natural human tendency to avoid behavior which is known to generate direct pain. If the tree-huggers insist, we could use the money freed up by closing most of the jails on rehabilitation centers which the offender would be free to use after their punishment - centers that would lack coercive mechanisms and would have to rely on actually convincing people to change to get results. "If you want to change, you're welcome here; if not, get out."

Summary: prison fails every test of its utility except for one. The lash passes every test except for one. Moving to the lash frees up resources that could be used to make genuine rehabilitation available to those people with criminal pasts who could live free, productive lives with a little help.

Bring back the lash! Its time has come again.


flint cordoroy said...

Unfortunately our society has been usurped by an extreme overload of lawyers and hyperspecialized bureacrats.

Legitimate beatings administered legitimately probably would result in better behavior for a large segment of the population. But for repeat offenders of non-severe crimes something more is probably needed. Putting them on a meager diet of bread, water, broth, milk, and carrots for a few days in a monastic environment to take energy for confident anger out of them. Followed by extreme intervention therapy or mentoring. We used to have drunk tanks. We should have tanks for young men hopped up on false pride and a desire for instant gratification.

In teaching offenders a more socially acceptable value system, it is necessary to get them to understand a more socially acceptable value system. Explaining the technical aspects of it is more or less all greek to them. It may register on a simple grammatic level, but not emotionally or even intellectually.

Tuomas said...

As I understand it, for a person to become a criminal one (or more) of the four following must hold true:

1) The person must be self-centered and lack ability to empathize. Psychiatry eggheads, in their desire to medicalize everything and everyone, use "Anti-social personality disorder" to descibe such people. Me, I prefer the slang term for the endpoint of gastro-intestinal syste.

2)The person believes that he/she will not get caught and receive the punishment. This belief can be rational, often it is not.

3) The person will not think about the consequences.

4) The person does not fear the consequences/punishment, or considers it trivial.Currently, prison and social stigma*.

Now, based on this, I will make some predictions if the no jails, yes beatings is accepted:

Decrease: Petty crimes, such as speeding, littering, shoplifting candy/tobacco/alcohol etc. middle-class youngster crimes.Case in point, Singapore.

Uncertain/no change: Crimes of passion, violent crimes.Some criminals might be more deterred by jail, others by lash.

Increase: Crimes with strong economic incentive, like drug trafficking, human trafficking, burglary, carjacking. The reason? Currently, being put in the prison for a considerable amount of time is an economic disincentive. You can not break in to houses in prison. However, as the criminal weights up, say earning 10.000$ vs. possible beating (and not earning that) then chances are he/she will choose to take the chance. Case in point, prostitution.

All in all, many of your concerns against the prison system do not call for a different system, but can be better solved with improving the said system and other means (lionized mass murderer = death penalty, slum life that sucks = providing opportunity for the slum-dwellers to improve their lot in life).

*: There are fools who romanticize criminal behaviour, like some subcultures and rebellious teenagers.