The Crimes of Punishment

Surely someone, not something, must be to blame, must be responsible for whatever catastrophe that may have just occurred. Even CNN knows this. Blaming an event on someone obviates the need to fully explain, to seek a cause; relieves us of the responsibility to understand, to acknowledge the true cause. Seems it is somehow better if someone started the forest fire; not lightning or the effects of Climate Change. Blaming someone is different than blaming something. Though, seeking something to blame is more likely to lead us to the cause. Finding the cause is more likely to prevent recurrence.

While scientists seek to identify causes; the law (here, law enforcement and the criminal courts in concert), representative society, seeks someone to blame, to hold responsible. It is what they are paid to do. If the law does find someone to hold responsible for a crime, it is most likely holding the effect of the cause(s), not the cause(s), responsible for the crime committed. The law doesn’t do cause.

Under our laws, if a court finds someone to be to blame for, to be responsible for, to be guilty of a crime (an illegal act), the court may order that this person be penalized, or punished. Even simply accusing someone of being to blame for something bad that happened is a form of punishment.

What is punishment? In modern US law, punishment implies the infliction of pain or suffering, exacting retribution. Doing so is akin the ‘an eye for an eye’ that dates from the Code of Hammurabi. Begging such questions as: What was done before and after Hammurabi? What is done in cultures outside the influence of Hammurabi and Abraham? And, as always, perforce, we need ask, “how should it be?”

Why do we punish? Was the threat of punishment adopted as a way of maintaining ‘law and order’? Social order? Religious order? As a way of imposing rule? A more despotic ruler would have almost certainly have needed to use punishment (or the threat thereof) as a means of imposing, retaining, rule. An incompetent one might have chosen to use punishment (or the fear thereof) as a means of maintaining order in times of economic hardship. The more fanatical religions may have employed punishment (or the fear thereof) as a means of instilling belief; punishing non-believers. As settlements grew into cities; did the task of maintaining social order in these cities lead to its imposition, broader usage?

We know that many primitive societies did not, still don’t, use punishment; at least not in the sense of inflicting pain or suffering, of exacting retribution. We also know that some did, still do. We know that not all advanced societies employ punishment. Some that do punish now didn’t always; some that once did, no longer do. We see societies retain punishment after adopting a belief that does not condone punishment. We see societies adapt punishment that had previously opposed its use.

Given its widespread prevalence, punishment must be thought to be effective, to have utility, by more than rulers, despots, religious fanatics, …; that is, a large percentage of the general public must have bought in. Did the public get a good deal on their purchase? Or, as some are most want to ask, “What is the cost to benefit ratio on punishment?” If the man’s hands are chopped off for theft, he may not or may not steal again; he certainly won’t be able to make a living for himself, let alone a family. If a man is tortured to death, what does it matter what happens to his soul?

Tough high school class in a neighborhood with high unemployment. Policeman in the room most days; no books left, teacher’s desk broken apart. Each class is run like a cell block by four of the male students; one of whom is the ‘cell block lawyer’. Many of the students sport homemade tattoos. Socializing only; no teaching allowed unless permitted. Safe bet that a lot of the kids’ fathers either are or have been incarcerated. If so, it is likely that the father can’t make the family a living, that he brought elements of prison life home. — He may not be a good role model. The same kids’ mothers: Have most likely suffered spousal abuse. Are probably working two jobs in order to pay the rent, to keep food on the table. Use whatever public assistance is available. Hope to somehow break the cycle; to keep their sons (and daughters) out of jail. Chances are that some of this familial dysfunction is generational; has been handed down from father to son, from mother to daughter for generations.

The incarcerated fathers were found by a court of law to be guilty of committing a criminal act. By incarcerating the fathers, society had chosen to remove them from the general society. That part makes some sense. Criminal activity can lead to injury or death; imposes hardship on others; is detrimental to social order, to the general economy.

In America, incarceration goes beyond removing someone from society. It is also a means of imposing punishment. Addressing the cause of their criminal activities would make more sense. Breaking the cycle makes sense. Little evidence that punishment does anything to break the cycle; a lot that it perpetuates it. For sure, it doesn’t address the root causes of crime.

This removal from society by imprisonment is expensive, very expensive. Cost more to imprison someone than it does to educate them. Cost society a lot to provide assistance to the families of the current and former incarcerated. The waste of educational resources cost society. The more punishment meted out, the more that are imprisoned. It has gotten to the point where ‘law and order’ now cost more than society can afford.

Imprisonment and crime cost society perhaps more than it would to make corrections to the economic model that failed to provide opportunity. More than it would to have made the timely interventions that would have treated the underlying psychological issues. More than it would have to address the real causes of the crimes that evoked the punishment.

What if, instead: Society intervened early on in a constructive way? Highly qualified, skilled counselors, with parental collaboration, intervened when it became obvious that a preschooler had severe behavioral issues? There were social services available to help parents with their social-economic, parenting, issues? Per the more enlightened Scandinavian countries, we held public discussions on this issue; developed and implemented alternatives?

We hear that the schools, the teachers are letting down kids of color, all underprivileged kids. It’s the old blame game again, and, besides, deniality is good politics.

The impolitic truth: Some of these kids have suffered egregious abuse, hardship. Some suffer PTSD. Most of their parents are struggling to make ends. These are some of the effects of a failed social-economic system. The kids and their parents are the victims. Most teachers and administrators in these schools give it their very best and then some. They are getting bleeding ulcers, heart disease, and PTSD trying to help these kids; are, too, the victims.

So we blame the teachers and the schools and punish the kids when we should address the causes. When we should be helping the parents, the teachers, and the schools. Blaming the victims is another of America’s great sins.

A large percentage of those incarcerated in America are mentally ill. What good does incarceration, punishment, do other than worsen their mental health? Wouldn’t it be better to offer them treatment that gave them back their lives?

We incarcerate and punish people for the effects of their addiction, then give them little or no treatment for their addiction while they are incarcerated. What good does that do? What good does this punishment do the babies of addicted mothers born in prison? What is the cost to any of their children? What is the benefit to society in punishing both? What does this punishing cost society? What is the net?

For the underprivileged kids, punishment is a big part of the problem. They and theirs have known generations of hardship and punishment. For the kids, punishment isn’t going to solve anything (is more likely part of the problem). Meting out more punishment only compounds the problem. There needs to be more early intervention, more counseling, tutoring, and, perhaps, therapy; more economic surety. Positive things that are much more likely to work.

Five thousand years is a long time to keep doing the same thing and to keep expecting different results.

Not the same, certainly deserves addressing separately; but, is all too associated:

For four years, America was led by a man with severe psychological issues; a president who was a chronic liar, who had little concern that hundreds of thousands of Americans were dying needlessly, who cared nothing for our democracy, who cared only about himself. Almost certainly these issues were detectable, perhaps readily apparent, from early childhood.

The previous Attorney General moved boldly to protect the previous president and himself; moved boldly and gleefully to execute thirteen federal prisoners before his term expired. This is a man who took advantage of a ‘long time friend’s’ cognitive decline in an effort to prevent exposure or the former president’s egregious acts. The previous Attorney General showed little concern for the causes of crime, for the inequities of our law enforcement and economic model that sparked protests; it was the effect, the protests that were bad. As with the former president, the man’s issues were almost certainly apparent from early childhood. Both of these men suffer from mental illness.

History is replete with stories about such men as these who rose to positions of great power and did great harm. What these two did was more wrong than most of the crimes committed by the men and women now in prison; should have been a crime. There needs to be laws addressing such egregious acts by anyone at anytime. As importantly; there needs to be a means of intervening and addressing such psychological issues early on; early enough to preclude the portent damage. Effective early psychological intervention could save the world a lot of misery.