April 15, 1994

Crime and Punishment

The advocates of harsh treatment of criminals remembers none of the evidence that it doesn't reduce crime; the advocate of prison reform remembers none of the evidence that even humane prisons rarely rehabilitate their inmates.

Morton Hunt, 1982

Every politician is concerned about crime. Not only is this not a new thing for politicians, but it has been political ploy number two, second only to patriotism. Crime becomes number one when our country doesn't have an enemy. Now that the Soviet Union is no more, the only newsworthy item left is crime. This principle also applies to the press; so, with two estates being concerned with crime, we have little choice but to put up with the rhetoric.

I think that it was Lincoln Stephens who wrote about how his newspaper created a crime wave. There is now a crime wave in the making as you can easily find out by watching TV and reading newspapers and magazines. Polly Klaas was a real tragedy, but that has petered out. A couple of month ago, crime was kept in the public eye by some clown who womped skater Nancy Kerrigan on the thigh. It was something out of Woody Allen's Take the Money and Run. He was supposed to break her knee cap, which would have put her out of shape for some time, but he missed, bruising her thigh instead. Even though statistics indicate that crime rates are down, the media make it seem as if we are in the midst of a crime wave. Both Governor Wilson and President Clinton have dropped in my esteem because both are pandering to that synthetic crime wave.

In merry olde England, there was lots of crime. Why was there lots of crime? There was lots of crime because a lot of people were in abject poverty. Some people stole to eat and others stole because that was their way of life. The remedy in those days was hanging and prison. Did it do any good? Probably not. Crime rates dropped when living conditions improved for the underclasses.

There are a number of different kinds of criminals and there seems to be no correspondence between the type and the punishment. There are beginners in crime who can often be discouraged from a life of crime by getting caught or by doing a short stretch in the pokey. There are vicious dangerous people who will probably not change. These can only be dealt with by execution or permanent incarceration. There are people who kill a spouse or a business partner in anger, who will probably never commit another crime. These are the ones who are imprisoned for life. There are clever criminals who are never caught.

Punishment has several purposes: One is justice, which deals with retaliation for a crime; the eye for an eye principle. It is the basis for both Hebrew and Moslem law. A second purpose deals with the protection of the public. Its goal is to protect society from people who are likely to commit more crimes.

There are criminologists and others who have an understanding of what it would take to make the system work; or at least to improve it. These are not the people who make or enforce the laws.

Much as we would like it to be otherwise, our criminal justice system can't possibly be much better than the people who administer it. This is true from the cop on the beat to the lawyers and judges, parole board members, prison administrators etc. Nor can our government be any better than the people who run it. As a consequence, the effect of the laws that will be enacted to deal with our hypothetical crime wave will probably be zilch.

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