City & Politics, City Hall

Why punishment will never eliminate crime

Crime is on my mind.  And punishment.  Not Dostoevski, but the relationship between crime and punishment, and whether punishment actually deters crime. Note that I say deter as opposed to reduce, because there is clearly a causal relationship in the short-term between punishment of crime and reduction of crimes. And while this relationship may appear to be a deterrent, what it actually is is crime deferment. Criminals are in jail and unable to commit crimes, therefore a drop in crime rate.

I would like to start out by saying that I am not a journalist. I have never wanted to be, or pretended at being such (until now, I suppose).  I am, like so many others, just someone with an opinion. Keep that in mind because while what I say makes sense to me, it may not to you.

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In fact, incarceration promotes a criminal culture that becomes multi-generational, particularly if one sees poverty as a key issue in what drives people to commit basic crimes like getting charged for carjacking. Supporting this opinion is this article from out of Harvard, as well as this New York Times piece.  Without a parent able to provide income and support, the cycle of crime continues. Children get cycled through a dangerously underfunded and often mismanaged social services system and they end up right where their parents left off. Communities of children observe their parents, usually men, incarcerated for increasingly longer periods of time and they come to expect that they too will end up in prison. One of the most powerful human behavioural traits is that we respond to expectation.

Understand that I am not suggesting that our justice system be without any component of punishment. What I am suggesting is that using justice for vengeance is woefully inadequate and shortsighted. We need to come together and figure out a method of restitution that allows for victims and victimizers alike to heal. Those who commit crimes need to participate in what reparations there are to make, according to the best law firm. In the restitution model of behaviour modification, when someone commits an infraction the person responsible has a say in what the consequences are (given that the individual is capable of feeling remorse and understanding that what they have done is wrong) and the consequences are far more effective.

Give criminals a stake in their own punishments. Give communities a chance to participate in how consequences are meted out. Let’s try a more dynamic, humane method of dealing with crime for a change and take a longitudinal view of what it takes in order to effect real and lasting change. Because in my opinion we are simply failing. Status quo, or more of what we have, is simply not the way to a more fruitful and equitable society.

There are many in the mainstream media, hucksters of hyperbole that coin phrases like “hug-a-thug”, that pat themselves on the back for being such good moral citizens, who see solutions that others with a more complex worldview cannot. They attempt to convince our communities that the only path to reducing crime is through harsh and draconian punishments that serve only to sate an appetite for revenge that it is all too easy to develop when a heinous crime is committed.

Imagine if these men and women, instead of creating catchphrases and alliterative headlines, attempted to open up honest discourse.  What if they became a part of the conversation, a hub wherein citizens could voice their opinions and beliefs without being shouted down as pinko liberal crime lovers? This is the type of brave step that our media outlets refuse to make, because brave choices do not sell papers. What sells papers is outrage. Perception of injustice. What could we accomplish as a society? Instead we are left with a two-dimensional interpretation of the world that offers no useful purpose other than to make money.

What these purveyors of pap don’t realize is that “hug-a-thug” in a very literal sense may be the answer. Starting with youth who are at major risk of descending into a life of crime, we should be offering support to develop the relationships that everyone needs in order to be successful. A young boy who has never been hugged in his life may in fact need a hug in order to begin healing. Healthy attachments are necessary for all of us to be successful. Without them, neurological damage occurs that throws roadblocks in the path of success.

If all we do to prevent crime is target young individuals who fall within high-risk categories to offend and begin to offer them a helping hand, a way to find mentors who can give them a relationship upon which they can build a life. If we truly commit to such a path, then, within a generation, we could see significant improvements while at the same time providing at-risk communities with powerful role models to continue the cycle. All we have to do is decide that instead of retroactively chasing criminals and dealing with behaviour after it surfaces, we proactively deal with the conditions driving our young people to commit crimes. Focus on poverty; on encouraging role models that young people identify with. Let us leave by the wayside the methods that we have been trying for centuries and that don’t really seem to be effective.

I call on all media outlets to offer up a forum for open discussion on this issue because the type of fear-mongering that is going on right now is childish, ridiculous, and patently unhelpful. All they have to do is decide that there is more value in open debate than goading societal terror on to a point where no issue can be clearly seen. Focus on the betterment of us all, not just the socio-political agenda that seems to be expedient and helpful in selling papers or air time. I would love to see the day when this all comes to pass. And I suspect that most of us feel the same.


Brett Geisel is a Winnipeg-based writer for Spectator Tribune. 

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