Crime and punishment

Somewhere in all the tough-on-crime rhetoric we seem to have missed out the step where we talk about what prisons are actually for. Do we have prisons to keep us safe, to rehabilitate, to deter, or to punish?

In theory we have them to keep us safe, no more no less. In practice some victims of crime and some onlookers want vengeance. I believe they have no right to vengeance, they have a right to have things put as right as possible (recognising that many things cannot be put right), and they have a right to be safe; but there is no right to punish, no right to inflict pain for that selfish purpose.

So why should prisons be any different? They should serve the purpose only of protecting us and only as a last resort because simply by incarcerating someone we do huge damage to them and those around them.

If we used prisons only when absolutely necessary to to keep us safe

  1. Far fewer people would be locked up – only those that we had no other way of keeping us safe from.
  2. There would be minimal restrictions on those people – if the community will be safe if the person has a TV, they should be able to have a TV, if the community will be safe if they see their children in a friendly inviting environment with toys three afternoons a week, then they should be able to do that. The restrictions we place should be only those that are needed to keep us safe.

Yet we have many prisons full to bursting with people who would do no damage is set free, or who we could be kept safe from in other ways. The people in those prisons (and their families) suffer restrictions which are totally unnecessary.

We have a prison system based on vengeance and punishment, is that who we want to be?

[I have struggled with this post and rewritten it several times, the word “prison” bothers me. I believe that what we should have, for the handful of people who we can’t be safe from without some kind of restraint, is so unlike our current prisons that I don’t know what to call them. 

I thoroughly recommend Maia’s posts about prisons at Capitalism Bad; Tree Pretty, she says it so much better than me. All I know how to say is that we have no right to seek revenge]

27 thoughts on “Crime and punishment

  1. Even though you think you struggle you have it right. It takes a good person to turn the other cheek, most of us find this hard, therein lies the problem for mankind.

  2. Now that’s another example of a false argument. Where’s your authority for the statement that the sole use of imprisonment is to keep us safe?
    By accepting that the rest of your argument is nonsense too.
    Also nice to see jcuknz use Roman Catholic morality to subscribe to your standpoint, beautiful!
    By the way, if your argument was sound, then a better way to deal with criminals would be to physically (or otherwise)impair them from ever repeating their offence, without restricting their access to society in any other way, certainly an idea you would strongly oppose to on grounds of “human rights”.

  3. Dimmocrazy,

    I’ve just linked to the Department of Corrections website which says their “fundamental purpose is improving public safety.”

    I really didn’t think the idea that the purpose of prisons was to keep people safe was controversial. You find the same explanation pretty much everywhere you look.

    What do you think the purpose of prisons is or should be?

    Do you think we have a right to more than safety?

    I just stumbled over this from the Catholic Church. It interested me that they talk about prisons being for punishment, but the punishment is for the purpose of rehabilitation, which is for the purpose of crime prevention, and thus public safey.

    Prisons must be places where a person is sent as punishment, but always for the purpose of rehabilitation into society. The demand for retribution has a dehumanising and soul destroying effect on offenders. While we recognize that imprisoning some offenders is necessary for the protection of other people, this is not the sole purpose of prisons. Our prisons must be places where attitudes are corrected. They must be structures which prevent further crime, rather than simply holding prisoners. They must provide opportunities for offenders to address their offending at a personal level, and assist in successful reintegration back into society.

  4. Do we have prisons to keep us safe, to rehabilitate, to deter, or to punish?

    Simple all of the above.

  5. Some people misunderstand the Biblical concept of turning the other cheek. It does not imply in any way, that the offender should not be held to account.

    To me the central issue is how best do we hold criminals to account for their actions: is the prison system as we see it practiced today, the best possible way?

    The recidivism rates imply there is vast potential for improvement.

    We’ve tried the Dickensian model, we’ve tried the touchy-feely model. Neither has worked. What are we missing?

    What we have never tried, is implementing a systematic approach geared toward looking seriously into the reasons why an individual has done what they’ve done and applying preventive principles toward whatever is discovered. A friend of mine once related a sad tale of the background of a criminal he was defending, I won’t give details but believe me it was tragic and no doubt you all know or can imagine similar cases of brutality begats brutality.

    Why is it that the PC brigade have never suggested we try this approach, systematically and thoroughly, acting to first understand the root causes then implementing legislation to allow pro-active intervention by authorities to prevent similar events occurring in other families?

    Is it because they don’t feel comfortable using the power of the govt to prevent crimes before they occur? If so, I respectfully suggest they get over it, because it’s quite clear that neither a punitive nor a rehabilitative approach is effective, and therefore, it’s well past time that we adopted a new approach, lest we fall into the old “definition of insanity” trap.

  6. I wouldn’t think that the PR statement by the corrections department about their fundamental purpose is in any way authoritative for your proposition (after all they don’t come into play until AFTER the societal consequence for crime has been determined). As HS mentions, punishment (in the wider sense) serves to fulfill a range of purposes, from revenge to rehabilitation and from keeping the community safe to deterrence. (to mention but some points on two possible dimensions, the personal and societal).
    Reid is making some valid points there and anyone with hands on experience with the criminal justice and corrections system will be able to provide plenty of examples. Personally I don’t think that increasing interventions will work if applied overall, these would only cause further and profligate nanny-ism. But, by the same token, one can pinpoint potential problem groups with high probability, but that is of course not-pc.

  7. The risk of nanny-ism is indeed high but like any risk it depends on how you act as to whether it (a) eventuates and (b) negates your intent.

    I would suggest it would be effective to adopt a hard-nosed, self-critical, laser-like approach to the intervention. If it was approached like a military operation where it was recognised from the outset that the risks of getting it wrong are fatal, and there was a willingness from the outset to actively learn from ones mistakes and instantly change the approach, then it would be effective.

    Whether or not this approach could be achieved using the combinations of public and private institutions that would need to be involved, is of course arguable. However, IMO, there is no reason in my mind why this couldn’t work, if one had the will to approach it like this and the authority to order that approach to be taken amongst every single player involved.

  8. HS/Anita: Then thing is that `keep people safe’ is a purpose, not a mechanism by which to achieve a purpose. `Exclude people from society’ is the main mechanism used to achieve that purpose, `punish offenders by incarcerating them’ is another, and `rehabilitate them during their incarceration’ is yet another. These aren’t mutually exclusive; they are all mechanisms used by prison systems in service of the greater purpose of `keeping people safe’. Both of the first two (in principle) have a deterrent effect. So in a way, both of you are right: the purpose of the prison system is to keep people safe, it’s just that you both seem a bit confused over which is the purpose and which are the mechanisms.


  9. reid:

    What we have never tried, is implementing a systematic approach geared toward looking seriously into the reasons why an individual has done what they’ve done and applying preventive principles toward whatever is discovered. […] Why is it that the PC brigade have never suggested we try this approach […] ?

    Ignoring for a moment your use of the meaningless propaganda term `PC brigade’, criminologists and social scientists who study deviance have been talking about this sort of thing for decades and have published reams and reams of research on how best to do this, most of which gets dismissed by the crime and punishment commentariat as `PC gone mad’. So I’m not sure it’s fair to sheet the lack of such programmes home to a heightened sense of political correctness; rather the opposite.

    I agree with you that such an approach would be beneficial – however I suspect we might disagree a little on its parameters. As with anything, the main points of disagreement are in implementation: most reasonable people agree in principle what the issues in play are (sure, there are a few nutters who argue that it’s the crushing dominance the capitalists exert over the proletariat, or that people prefer to breed kids for welfare payments than to live a decent life); they just disagree when it comes to the details of implementation.

    Incidentally, reid, it’s good to have you aboard here. You took a fair drubbing from some of the idiots at Kiwiblog for talking reasonable moderate sense about Israel/Palestine, but you stuck to your figurative guns. Fair cop.


  10. Lew,

    I’m entirely happy with the view that rehabilitation is necessary to keep us safe. I would argue, however, that prisons (as we know them) are not the best way to rehabilitate people.

    Deterrence… we may use deterrence to try to keep the public safe. I don’t believe it is the best approach (or even an effective one in many cases) but we might be trying to use it that way. If that was our well thought through plan I imagine we might be more overt about it, and we would probably structure our corrections system differently to pinpoint what is actually deterrent and minimise the unnecessary suffering it causes.

    Punishment, how does that keep people safe? If we think of punishment as being a way of achieving deterrence then there’s some sense there, but (as I said just above) if that’s what we were trying to do we’d do prisons very differently. Secondly, the crime-and-punishment brigade talk as if punishment is the goal in itself; we must uphold the victim’s rights by punishing the wrong-doer.

  11. jcuknz

    “It takes a good person to turn the other cheek, most of us find this hard, therein lies the problem for mankind.”

    I don’t think it’s all as essentialist as that. scandanavian justice systems are focused on public safty and rehabilitation, where as anglo-saxon countries tend to have a more punative and vengeful approach. It’s a matter of culture and values – humans don’t have to be petty and vengeful.

  12. Some excellent points made by various posters. But, Anita, what’s the support for your contention that:

    They [prisons] should serve the purpose only of protecting us and only as a last resort …

    Not controversial, eh? Well, if you start from a personal viewpoint and don’t explore meaningfully other possible purposes of prisons (e.g. deterrence, punishment under a 2-way social contract, etc), then you will be surprised to find that yours is not the only opinion. My guess is that your opinion might well be that of a small minority in society – in theory not necessarily wrong, but undoubtedly controversial.

    Your quote from Corrections carries no weight. It reflects neither the facts of Corrections’ operations nor any implied mandate from the public at large.

    Your quote from the Catholic Church is of greater interest, subject to there being a recognition that rehabilitation will not necessarily occur in 100% of cases. It could be argued that the Catholic Church’s view is consistent with what I understand to be its teachings on repentance for sin, penance to be served, and ultimate foregiveness / redemption for the individual.

  13. Agree Lew, it’s the implementation details that are key. Incidentally, I do regret laying responsibility for the issue entirely at the door of the ‘PC Brigade,’ it’s obviously not at all correct to allege that.

    Thanks for the welcome too, I rather enjoyed myself on those Kiwiblog Gaza threads, it was a good holiday distraction. What disappoints but doesn’t surprise me is that the people who vehemently defended the Israeli action on thread after thread, never once showed any sign of recognition that they themselves were behaving in as ideologically hide-bound a way as any Green party MP ever did. Logic flew out the door, emotion stepped in, and never left. Not once. And this was true of just about every single conservative commenter. It’s interesting how on that particular issue they’ve all been completely sucked in by the MSM propaganda, yet at the same time they decry the MSM’s “lefty bias” on that same issue.

  14. Carrier,

    Your quote from Corrections carries no weight. It reflects neither the facts of Corrections’ operations nor any implied mandate from the public at large.

    Actually it’s lifted from section 5 of the Corrections Act at the start of the section titled “Purpose of corrections system” which reads

    The purpose of the corrections system is to improve public safety and contribute to the maintenance of a just society

    So it carries as much weight and mandate is it is possible to carry.

    But, Anita, what’s the support for your contention that:

    They [prisons] should serve the purpose only of protecting us and only as a last resort …

    1) Their purpose is to protect us.
    2) The general principle that everyone should have all their rights protected by the state except where the state has a mandate to offset the rights of one against the rights of another.

    It seems to me that the state has the mandate to incarcerate for the purpose of protecting us and maintaining a just society and no other purpose. If the argument is that punishment protects us or contributes to a just state then we can debate that. If you believe that the corrections system has a separate purpose of punishment then they are well outside their mandate.

  15. reid writes,

    What we have never tried, is implementing a systematic approach geared toward looking seriously into the reasons why an individual has done what they’ve done and applying preventive principles toward whatever is discovered.

    What do you imagine that might look like? Because I think everyone would agree with those words but I don’t think we’d all think the same things would happen.

    I imagine addressing the root causes of poverty, illiteracy and power imbalance. I guess you’re about to call me PC :)

    P.S. Welcome aboard too! I kinda wish you’d been around for our conversations about Gaza :)

  16. I see things like:

    Getting real effective reporting processes operating allowing people who work with yet-to-be-identified at-risk groups to submit information and discuss their observations, share insights and evolve learning. Such groups include teachers, welfare agencies, charity groups, penal authorities, police. I’m sure there are many others. Emphasis is on nipping in the bud so would focus initially on the primary school age group. By the time these kids are 13-14 it’s often already too late.

    Family intervention is obviously fraught with difficulty and many would argue it already occurs anyway. My point is, yes, but it doesn’t work, so we need a new approach to such work – try new things.

    Essentially I believe it’s more about changing attitudes than changing circumstances. Two families side-by-side, one is loving, the other is violent and/or disrespectful about other’s property rights. Same socio-economic conditions prevail in both families. Why is one different to the other? Understanding that to me, is the key. Once you’ve got a good accurate scientifically verifiable (therefore replicable) understanding of that, you can design a solution that leads people away from anger, hatred, fear and violence, and leads them toward self-confidence, peace and hope.

    I think there is a lot of self-perception amongst criminals that they are victims of their own circumstance. They don’t have a lot of self-respect and until you get that, you can’t respect others. Same with love, until you love yourself not in an egotistical but in a respectful way, you can’t love others.

    I realise this all sounds rather trite but surely with all the psychological and other tools we have at our disposal today, we could implement such a model if we had a will and were prepared over the long term to resource it appropriately, whatever that took. In the long term it has to be cheaper than dealing with the current outcomes that will merely continue if we do nothing.

    I might add that one of things I believe is at the root of this is an unhealthy societal attitude toward money and possessions. To me, these mean nothing whatsoever. However I see all around me, all the time, in all socio-economic groups, the negative outcomes that arise from this mistaken perception. Pride, envy, avarice and wrath are the outcomes I see.

    Many people seem to misunderstand that the Biblical injunction re: money and evil is NOT that money is the root of all evil, it’s the LOVE of money that is the root of all evil. Once you make that critical distinction, you see that there is nothing wrong with aiming to become wealthy, provided you don’t let that pursuit interfere with ethical considerations vis-a-vis your fellow travelers.

    The relevance of this mistaken attitude toward money re: the crime issue, is that money is the driver for a great deal of crime. Once you identify the drivers of an issue you then have a better-than-average chance of having a real effect on changing it. If we could teach these families who currently produce criminals that there is a better way of looking at things like money, they might have an incentive to change their behaviours.

    Sorry to go on and on and on. Congratulations for reading this far, if you did….

  17. Anita,

    Somewhat belatedly you introduce another concept to add to that of protecting us – “maintenance of a just society”. That additional concept is not as simple as you seem to assume either. It could, for example, encompass punishment for crime, but you don’t explore that possibility or any of the alternatives. Your view of what constitutes a “just society” could again be very different from that of other people.

    Secondly, based on the content of the Act, you now link the wider purposes (protection, and maintenance of a just society) to the “corrections system” rather than to prisons only. That “corrections system” involves a great deal more than simply prisons, of course – parole, work schemes, probation mechanisms, and arguably the role of Court sentencing itself, amongst other things.

    The purposes clause of a piece of legislation is often couched in fairly general terms, as it appears to be in the Corrections Act from which you quote. It is capable of different interpretations. I repect you personal view that:

    They [prisons] should serve the purpose only of protecting us and only as a last resort …

    But I do not accept that the purposes clause gives your personal view

    as much weight and mandate is it is possible to carry.

  18. I will contribute a couple of ideas

    Difficulty learning at school exacerbates any home difficulty (housing/health/income). Thus if any learning difficulty is identified there needs to be focus on this quickly. Otherwise a trend to disrupting classes and truancy will develop (for which placing the truants into pro-active pick up to and return from to special education centres might be necessary).

    The ideal management of prisoners is probably work release along with special residence problem (in a separate prison wing and or an outside prison facility) resolution before home detention on parole (for some home detention with work release with non prison residential facility problem resolutioon periods first). Those who lapse can go from home detention to prison, or have parole deferred.

    While I vote for the Green Party, I don’t see these ideas as particularly PC or ideologically driven – unlike privately owned prisons and the like from those on the right.

    As for the right on Kiwiblog – they have a pack mentality and have trouble even finding the will to try and appreciate the worth in another point of view. Of course they support a certain line on Gaza, for them to do otherwise would have been hypocritical for them.

  19. See I support privately owned prisons SPC esp if there are well-designed incentives such as giving them a bonus if their recidivism rates are lower than the national average.

    I thought it most regrettable that Liarbore closed down the Auckland prison (purely for ideological reasons), when everyone was happy with it: the prisoners, the local iwi, uncle Tom Cobbely, etc.

    The only ones who weren’t happy, apparently, were the ideologically driven Liarbore party.

  20. When people join cults, or blogs like Kiwiblog, they assimilate the language of the other members.

    Kiwiblog is of course an excitable gathering of like minded folk who share the same truth – and disparage others who do not share their light, as boring liars of another world culture.

  21. Some people misunderstand the Biblical concept of turning the other cheek. It does not imply in any way, that the offender should not be held to account.

    Therein lies the problem … tit for tat … utu … an eye for an eye. It creates a never ending problem.

    The classic example in recent years was the reaction of the Bush Administration to 9/11. Failing to realise the root cause of 9/11 is the ‘ugly american’ they went seeking revenge and retribution instead of trying to see the real problem … akin to social justice lacking here is New Zealand as mentioned above.

    If you don’t have a caring responsible society you have to exercise the punitive actions so loved by the Right, and Left for that matter too.

    I dislike the not so clever word distortions found at Kiwiblog and sadly written above, not that I have much time for either the Green nor Labour parties as such.

  22. jcuknz,

    Properly exercising the biblical concept of turning the other cheek not only means you can if you like hold the offender to account but it also means you must truly forgive them. Holding them to account is an optional activity, but forgiveness is compulsory and must be done, everytime, if that is, you want to exercise it in a way as outlined in the Bible. So utu really doesn’t come into it.

    Prima facie this appears to be a contradiction – how can you both forgive and hold someone to account? I think of it like the discipline a loving parent gives to their children (emphasis on the loving bit). This kind of attitude may not practically be wholly transferrable into the justice system, but if we had a bit more of it, I don’t think it would be a bad thing.

    Re: my use of the pejorative L word above – please accept my unreserved apologies. I hadn’t fully assimilated the fact that I’m in someone else’s house and it was very rude of me to proceed to insult not only my fellow guests but possibly also my host(s), especially on my first visit and more especially after the warm welcome I received from both Anita and Lew. Not quite the way to make a good first impression and again, my unreserved apology.

  23. I wish people wouldn’t use the term 9/11 to mean “the events of the 11-Sep-01”. It’s “atrocity branding”, not to mention that most of the world doesn’t write dates like that.

  24. Rich,

    Similarly I wish people wouldn’t say “America” when they mean the USA. When I spent a couple of months in central american people would say “norteamericanos” which I thought must bug the Canadians just as much as it bugs people from central american to hear about “americans”.

    They’re interesting examples of how language can’t change when there is nothing to gradually shift to. “Nine eleven” and “americans” are so much faster to say than the correct alternatives. I wonder sometimes if “Aotearoa” would gain more acceptance if it was clear what the adjective (and nationality) was.

  25. I once had a quite heated argument with a Brazilian mate over how he was an American – in the same way that someone from China is a member of the superset `Asian’. He objected on the grounds that America has been redefined to only mean the US. I countered that the whole damned continent got its European name from Amerigo Vespucci, so technically he was. He countered that since he was indigenous, he predated the naming system. I had to concede. We remain friends :)

    But yeah, this sort of thing pisses me off, too.


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