Are we too tough on crime?
July 20, 2001 8:02 PM   Subscribe

Are we too tough on crime? "Nationwide, crime rates today are comparable to those of the 1970s, but the incarceration rate is four times higher than it was then. It's not crime that has increased; it's punishment." Yes, of course, people who do bad things should be punished. But is the current system worth the social and economic cost? Is there any better way to go about this? (Note: Lots of interesting internal links within the article.)
posted by edlark (27 comments total)

 
My daddy (who was a campaign manager for McGovern back in the day, although now he's become this nutball right-leaning talk show host. Oh, how the mighty have fallen...) used to tell me something that's become the mantra of my political philosophy:

People get the government they deserve.

That's basically all there is to say about it. We, the People, are getting what we deserve....
posted by hincandenza at 8:29 PM on July 20, 2001



it's not so much the crime that's increased, but what the gov't considers to be crime.

let the kids who are rotting in prison for having joint in their pocket back out onto the streets, and the prison population will drop about 60%.

well, maybe more. i dunno. yay war on drugs.
posted by jcterminal at 9:01 PM on July 20, 2001


Does anyone have a figure on the percentage of people currently in prison for having committed non-violent crimes? If it's a high percentage, it seems like a waste. Give 'em fines and lots of community service.

The only people who really need to be segregated from the general population are those who can't keep themselves from physically harming their fellow citizens. I'm speaking about folks who commit murder, battery, rape, molestation, etc.

Also, the states with three-strike laws have to reconsider such a ludicrous option.
posted by bilco at 11:34 PM on July 20, 2001


unless the three strikes are violent crimes, then they should be shot on site.
posted by jcterminal at 1:31 AM on July 21, 2001


Stop putting nonviolent criminals in jail for so long, decriminalize crap like marijuana.

Stop coddling the sickos that should be in jail for a loooong time (murder, rape, etc).
posted by owillis at 1:40 AM on July 21, 2001


But, how would industry churn out cheap goods if we didn't have such a wonderful captive work force ever so willing to work for no more than 1.10 an hour? Locking people up has always been good business, either for individual industries, or for the state sponsored status quo. Today even more so. As long as people maintain an "us vs them" approach to criminals and condemn the people rather than the behavior, then you'll always have a fresh crop of marginalized people, all ready to be taken advantage of.

No matter who you are, someone out there has a plan for you.
posted by dong_resin at 1:51 AM on July 21, 2001


Decriminalize everything that isn't direct initiation of force against others. So simple.
posted by dagny at 3:29 AM on July 21, 2001


who was a campaign manager for McGovern back in the day, although now he's become this nutball
right-leaning talk show host. Oh, how the mighty have fallen..


the 60's generation has produced a rich crop of Republicans.
posted by brucec at 5:20 AM on July 21, 2001


In his book, Man's Search for Meaning, reknown logotherapist Viktor Frankl says this:

I refer to what is called mysterium iniquitatis, meaning, as I see it, that a crime in the final analysis remains inexplicable inasmuch as it cannot be fully traced back to biological, psychological and/or sociological factors. Totally explaining one's crime would be tantamount to explaining away his or her guilt and to seeing in him or her not as a free and responsible human being but a machine to be repaired. Even criminals themselves abhor this treatment and prefer to be held responsible for their deeds.

I believe that this illustrates one of the fundamental weaknesses of the rehabilitation-not-punishment school of thought. Namely, that rehibilitation efforts often seem to assume that man is a machine to be fixed, and that the right "treatment" will cure him and prevent further crimes. If the criminal himself actively wants to change, then perhaps this is true and rehabilitation efforts may provide the incentive needed to enact the change. However, a great many criminals do not want to change. Punishment therefore provides the incentive to change while simultaneously serving to deter future criminals as much as possible.

What's the solution? I don't know. But I thought that Viktor Frankl's words might provide some insight to the problem.
posted by gd779 at 7:25 AM on July 21, 2001


Darn spellcheck. Make that "renown" and "rehabilitation".
posted by gd779 at 7:26 AM on July 21, 2001


Actually the juvenile justice system has started a trend away from instant lock-down for juvenile offenders. Programs that focus on more of a community responsibility versus, "lock 'em up" mentality are receiving more attention and funding. If you look at the press releases for the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, it is evident by the grant funding and such that there is a turn toward a focus on community based efforts.

I also tend to agree with gd779...people don't change unless they want to; however, it's difficult for people to be empowered to change when everyone is telling them they can't because they are "bad."

It will take a long time for a real change to take effect, but the bottom line is non-profit community-based organizations can often more effectively rehabilitate people than traditional facilities. I know I don't have much evidence supporting what I'm saying here, but I work for such a program, and our statistics are compelling enough (after less than two years!) to become the cadillac program for the state's juvenile justice goals.
posted by karenh at 7:36 AM on July 21, 2001


karenh: Way back when I was a sophomore in high school, I took my first debate class: the topic was juvenile crime. The case I developed promoted non-profit community-based organizations, and we did quite well with it. You bring back some good memories. Heh. Thanks!
posted by gd779 at 7:49 AM on July 21, 2001


Decriminalize everything that isn't direct initiation of force against others. So simple.

No jail time for thieves? Don't think so.
posted by owillis at 7:50 AM on July 21, 2001


It's worth noting that our jails have become such overcrowded hell holes(thanks to the war on some drugs)
that people who serve time for minor crimes often come out much worse than when they went in.
posted by keithl at 10:24 AM on July 21, 2001


Actually the juvenile justice system has started a trend away from instant lock-down for juvenile offenders.

That's bound to happen when the kids being locked up stop being "those damn hooligans" and start being "our little angels."
posted by kindall at 11:01 AM on July 21, 2001


Excellent point, kindall; a lot of "tough on anything" mentalities stem from a dehumanizing principle. When it's those people commiting crimes- as you say, "those damn hooligans"- why, it's so easy to throw the book at them because they aren't even human- they're just abstractions. But when the problem hits home... well, it's suddenly a lot easier to talk about understanding the root causes and reform and rehabilitation. :)
posted by hincandenza at 1:58 PM on July 21, 2001


a lot of "tough on anything" mentalities stem from a dehumanizing principle. When it's those people commiting crimes- as you say, "those damn hooligans"- why, it's so easy to throw the book at them because they aren't even human- they're just abstractions.

Not to speak for kindall, but for me the term hooligan isn't necessarily "dehumanizing." I still think of a human being when I hear the term — I just think about a misbehaving human. Same as when I hear the term vandal or rabble-rouser.

If kindall had called juvenile offenders "little devils" or something like that, then I think you'd have a case as devils can be seen as mere conceptualizations of inhuman forces.

By the same token, the phrase "our little angels" is literally dehumanizing, as angels are abstractions and devoid of human nature. They're wholly pure and operate on a different level than we all-too-human beings.

So it seems you're jumping on the wrong term in kindall's statement, assuming you wanted to point out the term that is really an "abstraction" or "dehumanizing."
posted by bilco at 2:23 PM on July 21, 2001


Well, my point was "us" versus "them," not so much dehumanizing. The laws are supposed to protect "us" from "them," so when "we" start getting arrested, obviously the laws have gone "too far."
posted by kindall at 2:39 PM on July 21, 2001


Decriminalize everything that isn't direct initiation of force against others. So simple.

No jail time for thieves? Don't think so.


I think what dagny meant was decriminalize everything that isn't a direct violation of the rights of others: drug use, prostitution, and so forth.

A view I wholeheartedly agree with, by the way.
posted by ljromanoff at 4:40 PM on July 21, 2001


related site: Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do - The Absurdity of Consensual Crimes in our Free Country by Peter McWilliams. Hey - Sting thought it was brilliant - it MUST be good! ;-)
posted by thunder at 6:18 PM on July 21, 2001


Us vs. Them is dehumanizing, that's the point. What kindall said was that when the law begins to affect "us", suddenly we want to rethink how tough the law is being, suddenly it seems unfair. But when it's only affecting other people- "hooligans" or "little devils"- it is a dehumanizing stance to rage for tougher laws, for harsher punishments. And we rage for those punishments, bilco, not because we are still "think[ing] of a human being" but precisely because we aren't thinking of a human being but rather an abstraction of a human being that is boiled down to simply "thug", "criminal", or "hooligan". I think you misunderstand dehumanization when you think only in semantic terms of whether a word is literally a representation of "inhuman forces". Although I do agree that "little angels" has its own dehumanizing element, in seeing "our" children as perfect jewels of untainted innocence.

Thank god there isn't a " tax, or I'd go into debt from that above paragraph...
posted by hincandenza at 6:26 PM on July 21, 2001



And we rage for those punishments, bilco, not because we are still "think[ing] of a human being" but precisely because we aren't thinking of a human being but rather an abstraction of a human being that is boiled down to simply "thug", "criminal", or "hooligan".

First off, I'm not "raging" for anything, including unjust punishments. As noted in my posts above, I'm not into unjust punishment anymore than you probably are.

However, I would like violent criminals to be removed from general society. I don't think they have a right to harm others. And I don't have a problem considering those criminals as, well, criminals.

As for turning humans into abstractions, I could spend a great deal of time with, say, a serial rapist. I could listen to his stories, meet his family, learn about his life. At the end, he'd still be a rapist and I wouldn't have any problem calling him a rapist.

Same goes for a hooligan who puts another person into a coma at a soccer match because he's angry that his team is losing, or a thug who beats the hell out of his spouse. Even if this hooligan or thug was someone I knew very well, he'd still be a hooligan or a thug.

And the US and THEM thing needs to be heavily qualified. It's not always a bad thing. It depends on what filters you're using. If you're talking about library cards, for instance, some people have them (US), some don't (THEM). I'm not necessarily dehumanizing someone just by putting them into a statistical category.

The filter in question here is whether someone commits a violent crime. There are people who have molested children (in my case, a THEM) and those who have not (in my case, an US). I don't buy your argument that because I make this distinction, I'm also necessarily going to "rage" for cruel and unusual punishment for that child molester. In my case, it's not true.

I think you misunderstand dehumanization when you think only in semantic terms of whether a word is literally a representation of "inhuman forces".

I mentioned the semantics issue only because you brought it up when you were able to discern bad faith in the term "those damn hooligans" that you quoted. Maybe I misunderstood you.

But I don't understand why it's fair of you to use phrases like "a lot of 'tough on anything' mentalities," for example, to paint a picture of some shady group of people lurking out there somewhere raging for cruel punishments. Such a phrase seems to me an example of the dehumanizing generalization that you correct others of using.

Don't get me wrong. Me, I don't have a problem with you drawing attention to those Americans who call for ridiculous three-strike laws and the like. I can't help but think of these folks as abstractions in a sense, as I'll never know most of them, but I certainly still disagree with them and I know for a fact they're out there.

And I don't feel you dehumanized that group just by putting them into a THEM group. Seemed to make sense to me, as I also put them into a THEM group.

I just think you should cut the same sort of slack to others.
posted by bilco at 9:16 PM on July 21, 2001


I think what dagny meant was decriminalize everything that isn't a direct violation of the rights of others: drug use, prostitution, and so forth.

If so, then I agree too (of course I'd like to tax and regulate them...)
posted by owillis at 10:42 PM on July 21, 2001


I think what dagny meant was decriminalize everything that isn't a direct violation of the rights of others: drug use, prostitution, and so forth.

If so, then I agree too (of course I'd like to tax and regulate them...)


Well, you're half way there, Oliver. We'll have turned you to the Dark Side yet.
posted by ljromanoff at 6:58 AM on July 22, 2001


Don't count on it.
posted by owillis at 8:18 AM on July 22, 2001


Yes, putting others into a "them" group is not dehumanizing them. Speaker for the Dead had an interesting take on the idea -- there are various degrees of "stranger," people you recognize as being your kin, of your country, and of your species (or something like that, I don't recall the exact details). He used different words for each in this novel.
posted by kindall at 10:14 AM on July 22, 2001


Y'know, it's odd Kindall but I really liked that book, and often think of it as an example of what I mean. Perhaps I define dehumanize a little differently, but that's basically what I was going for- how the people in that community essentially treated that one large guy like a monster, projected their own prejudices onto him. It took the Speaker for the Dead for them to understand that the person was a human being, as much as they were, and understand the complexity of his life and not just some thumbnail impression they had of him, as "abuser" or "thug" or "hooligan"...
posted by hincandenza at 12:17 PM on July 22, 2001


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