Tuesday, July 01, 2008



A recent Supreme Court decision overturned a death sentence for a person convicted of raping a child. It appears that the Court has decided that only murder and treason are crimes that merit the death penalty. The news of the decision has set me to thinking again about the relation between crime and the specified punishment for the crime.

Punishment by agencies of government, including the capture and trial of the suspect, has its origin in a tradition of vengeance. Before there were strong governments, members of a family, clan, or tribe would avenge an injury on one of their members by members of another family, clan, or tribe. The vengeance would be roughly proportional to the injury. If you kill a member of my family, a member of my family is obligated to kill you or a member of your family. Feuds of this sort could last for centuries, long after the injury that started the feud was completely forgotten.

Strong governments are able to put an end to these feuds. Trials and jails are substituted for family vengeance. The punishment of the person convicted has to be severe enough to be a satisfactory substitute for the vengeance the family would exact.

Social workers and others understand that there is an economic advantage in replacing or supplementing punishment with training and education. The convict is punished by spending time in jail or prison. While there, he or she is educated to be able to earn his or her living after leaving prison, and to refrain from committing more criminal acts.

Moralists understand that severe punishments can act as deterrence to crime. The convict who has to serve the sentence serves as an example or object lesson to other potential criminals. They will refrain from committing a similar crime because they don’t wish to suffer the punishment.

Legislators, who have the responsibility to enact taxes needed to operate the system of justice, understand that taxes are very unpopular. They resist paying for the education and retraining of convicts. Taxpayers resent seeing their taxes used to provide education and training of prisoners. They think and hope that severe penalties will prevent other persons from committing crimes and that convicts will, upon release from prison, mend their evil ways to avoid being convicted again and sent back to prison. That is to say, the public and public officials understand and sympathize with the moralistic view of punishment. They don’t understand or sympathize with the view of the social workers.

I’ve tried to write this essay without taking sides. However, it is probably evident to you that my sympathies are with the social workers rather than the moralists. I think that long prison terms are expensive and don’t achieve their goal of serving as an example. A short term followed by probation would serve just as well. The important thing to remember is that the typical criminal doesn’t expect to be caught. If he’s not caught, the severity of the punishment makes no difference to him or to any other potential criminal. It makes sense to me that our society should spend more money on policing, so that a greater fraction of crimes are detected and the criminals apprehended, and less money on the prisons needed for the long prison terms. Probation is much less expensive than incarceration.

Advocating this change in our approach to crime and punishment makes me a radical. Perhaps some of you may think of me as a dangerous radical. I like the term, but I must confess that at my stage of life I no longer have the ability to be dangerous. I’m just a radical.

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