Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Crime and Punishment, Part 4

"Mercy to the guilty is cruelty to the innocent."
Adam Smith

In Part 3 I discussed punishment for property crimes involving violence. Here I'm concerned with crimes whose goal is violence committed on an innocent person: rape, aggravated assault, murder, terrorism and other political/ideological violence, murder for profit, any crime in which people are injured due to "depraved indifference", and domestic violence in which the stronger preys upon the weaker. Child abuse, not discipline such as spanking but actual, injurious violence, sexual or not, is also included.

How would I punish these people? I'd kill them. Note I did not say "execute," "terminate," or any other euphemism. Kill. Take their lives so that they cannot prey on anyone else, whether in or out of prison.

"But," some might say, "what about rehabilitation? Surely some of these people, by virtue of our common humanity, deserve the opportunity to become decent members of society after they have paid their debt." Horse manure. Show me any credible evidence that such rehabilitation ever occurs and I'll consider it. So far I haven't seen any.

"But," they'll say again, "some of these people are mentally ill! Some are retarded!!! You can't want to kill people who are not responsible for their own behavior!" Yes, I do. I'm not proposing the death penalty as a morally equivalent punishment for their crimes, some sort of divinely ordained retribution. It's pest control, of the same moral status as killing a rabid coyote. It is purely and simply about removing a danger to innocent people, or even those not so innocent. Note I wrote "people," not "society." Society is by and for the individual.

I don't wish to make these convicts suffer gratuitously. That's evil, and while Quentin Tarantino may enjoy purposeless violence, I don't. That's why I don't favor publicly killing the guilty. It's not entertainment. Given that, how should the killing be done? Not with lethal injection, which is theater designed to allow the queasy to convince themselves that we're being gentle and humane to those we kill. Not with the electric chair, or the noose, or the guillotine, either. These are props in a theater of revenge. I think the Communist Chinese have the method right, if nothing else: One round to the back of the head. If the brain is destroyed the capacity for suffering is, too. If you want to be sure one shot is effective, use a shotgun. Yes, it's messy, but it's as quick and painless as death ever gets, and it's honest.

There is one final but very important issue to be addressed: How do we know who to kill? Jury decisions are wrong often enough to make anyone with a sense of decency apprehensive about the death penalty. Eyewitnesses are often in error, and their judgments can be manipulated. Only fools believe that juries are unbiased, or that police and prosecutors always care about justice rather than case clearing and conviction rates. Lab results can be sloppy or faked.* "Reasonable doubt" is too low a hurdle when anyone's life is at stake. I want a more stringent standard: certainty. If there is guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, but short of certainty, a sentence of life at hard labor at least provides the chance for a mistake (or a malicious prosecution) to be rectified. Where guilt is certain, as in the cases of Loughner,  Holmes, Hassan, and Hill, the sentence should be simple, quick and certain: kill them.

* Shockingly and sadly, today there's even more evidence of prosecutorial fraud. See:

My feeling is that anyone who perpetrates this kind of shameful injustice should face the same sentence the wrongfully convicted defendant got, up to and including death.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Crime and Punishment, Part 3

The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.
Albert Camus

In Part 2 I considered punishment for property crimes, recommending a program of systematic restitution through involuntary labor. What about violent property crimes?
Armed and strong-arm robbery come first to mind, but I would also include extortion, arson and other offenses that cause harm or the fear of harm to their victims, and real danger to first responders. The defining characteristics of these crimes are:
1.They are committed for material gain.
2.They involve physical harm or the threat of harm to someone in pursuit of #1.

In these cases I do not believe restitution through ordinary labor is sufficient. Even if we could establish a monetary value for physical harm to the victim (s), as is regularly done by insurance companies and in civil courts, additional years of ordinary work would likely have little effect on the perpetrators of such crimes. I would also not want them working side-by-side with nonviolent offenders, for the latter's sake.

I propose bringing back hard labor. Real hard labor: turning big rocks into small ones, digging holes, lifting and dragging. Doing difficult, painful labor in dangerous places. Prisoners would be compensated at minimum wage, again minus the cost of food, clothing, shelter and medical care at market prices. Their wages, as before, would go to compensate their victim's financial loss and trouble, their sentence to last until the victims are fully repaid. Their sweat, pain and exhaustion is to let them experience something like what they imposed on others. And, once again, no work means no food.

One might object that causing the criminal to suffer doesn't alleviate the victim's suffering. That's true, and irrelevant. This isn't about revenge, either. I don't propose deliberately making conditions inhumane; for one thing, if we only wanted to make criminals suffer we could do it far more easily and cheaply. The idea is to make sentences for these offenses as unpleasant as humanely possible while returning at least some compensation to victims and some cost to the government.

Objections might also be made on the grounds that the prisoners could be violent toward one another or to the guards. I find it hard to care if violent people punish one another, though I'd take all possible steps to prevent the kind of anarchy that exists now. Given that their labor helps pay the cost of their imprisonment, it could possibly allow us to afford greater security for both guards and prisoners with no increase in prison budgets.

Would such a program act as a deterrent or reduce recidivism? I don't know, but I know how to find out. I do know that our current policies are ineffective in either case. If what I propose is no better (but no worse) and cheaper, we're still better off. If it's neither better nor cheaper we try something else. It's most important to evaluate our results honestly, relative to reasonable goals that put the welfare of honest, decent people ahead of that of violent predators. That alone would be a giant step forward.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Crime and Punishment, Part 2

The common argument that crime is caused by poverty is a kind of slander on the poor.
H.L. Menken

My first essay on this topic discussed punishment for relatively minor offenses, recommending public discomfort, shaming and humiliation rather than jail time or fines. This leaves open the question of more serious, perhaps violent crime. First, I think we should separate purely property crimes (e.g.vandalism, theft, embezzlement, burglary) from those involving violence or its threat (e.g. robbery, battery, assault, rape, murder.) We might create a special category for crimes against children, including sexual exploitation, with and without overt violence.

For now, let's just consider property crimes. The appropriate punishment for these is restitution. The criminal in these cases does not owe a debt to "society" but to the people who have been harmed. They owe not only for the property stolen or damaged but for the time and trouble they caused their victims. Neal Boortz, who may be a pompous jerk in any of several ways, is also right about a lot of things. He's right when he says that taking someone's property is equivalent to taking that part of their lives used to earn that property.*
(This leaves open the interesting case of stealing from welfare recipients, which is taking part of the lives of the people who were taxed to supply the welfare payments, but that's another issue.)

But how to create restitution? The typical thief has little property to seize. Confidence artists and embezzlers may have property but usually much less than they have stolen, leaving little to be returned to their victims. What do they have left? Only their lives and what productive effort they can exert during them. I propose that those guilty of property crimes be put to work at the prevailing wage for what they are doing, minus the cost of their food, clothing, shelter and medical care computed at market retail. The unskilled can pick fruit, sweep floors, haul trash and so forth, on standard hours for the job. If they wish they can have access to after-hours training to qualify for higher-paying jobs and thereby repay their debt more quickly. The length of their sentences would be exactly equal to the time necessary to repay their victims. 

But, one might argue, in some cases that would be equivalent to a life sentence. So what?
What if someone simply refuses to work? Simple. No work, no food. That was the rule imposed at Jamestown, and it saved the colony. What if someone stubbornly starves to death? Again, so what? It's that person's choice, and their body.  Who are we to interfere?
Besides, we're dealing with self-interested thieves, not saints or ideologues prone to hunger strikes. It isn't going to happen.

It may seem that this system unfairly penalizes the poor, since the low wages paid for unskilled labor mean their sentences would be longer than the white-collar criminals'. Not necessarily. White-collar thieves typically steal much larger amounts, sometimes astronomically so. Besides, I'm not suggesting paying embezzlers and such as if they were hedge-fund managers or CEO's. An entry-level clerical wage is more the standard. If they in fact have greater ability than others and make a special contribution, they can earn more and thus repay their victims faster.

Note that sentencing of the sort I propose creates an objective standard for punishment, so that the possibility of sentencing bias due to race, attractiveness and other extraneous factors is eliminated. The potentially biased decisions of judges, parole boards and probation officers are replaced by cold calculation. True, mercy is absent from the equation, but so is malice. I think it's a fair trade.

* If a victim is insured the criminal owes the victim for whatever loss is not covered, plus time and trouble. The rest is owed to the insurance company.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

My Country, 'Tis of Thee...

I've always been of two minds about patriotism. On the one hand, I honestly believe that the United States of America is the last great hope of mankind. On the other hand, I'm keenly aware of our failings, both historical and contemporary. I still get choked up when I hear "The Star-Spangled Banner," but I'm angry when I see militant bigots (who'd happily have left my grandparents to die in Germany, Russia and Poland) style themselves "patriots."

Maybe instead of asking who's "really" patriotic we ought to be asking what it is we should be patriotic about. What is the United States?  If you want a geographical definition that's easy, and the boundaries are clear, even if you include places like American Samoa. Is all this territory what we should be patriotic about? Sure, we've got majestic purple mountains, fruited plains, all that and more, and if our cities aren't quite alabaster maybe we can still fix them. But lots of countries have that stuff. We get emotional over them because they're ours, just as the Europeans get emotional over their various Alps and the Nepalese, the Himalayas. 

How about our struggles and conquests? We've fought wars agaist tyrranical empires and saved uncounted millions in the process. But then we've also fought among ourselves, taken a good bit of our country from weaker neighbors, wasted lives in ill-conceived and poorly managed conflicts. We're certainly no worse and most likely better in that respect than any other country, kingdom, empire or tribe throughout history, but we probably shouldn't be singing about it. 

How about domestically? We've taken in millions from all parts of the world, all those huddled masses who could breathe more freely here than wherever they were born. My family was among them. But what did all those masses get when they arrived? Not joyful welcome. Most often not even grudging acceptance. What they got was a chance to fight for a better place in the world, and often it was a fight with real casualties. That others, born here, had to fight against our sins of slavery and Jim Crow as well as garden-variety bigotry
hardly inspires pride. That still others had their freedom and hard-won progress stripped away by our own government is in stark and shameful contrast to our ideals of equal opportunity. Once again, being better in this regard than any other nation throughout history should encourage us to try harder, but isn't the stuff of which Independence Day celebrations should be made. 

So, finally, what is? We need to ask ourselves what the United States is, really. What makes us a nation, what allows us to keep trying to do better despite our human failings and those of our founders. If there's anything we can be proud of, anything we can celebrate, it's that.

 It starts with a phrase that was unique in its concept and is still unique in its spirit:
"We, the People of the United States..."

There is nothing like this document in the history of the world. The Constitution is the United States. Without it all the rest is just...scenery. Politics. Bombast.  Without the touchstone of the Constitution the geographic and political entity on our maps is just another empire, fated to die in fire and blood like every other empire before it. My loyalty, my patriotism, is always and forever to the Constitution of the United States of America.