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.

1 comment:

  1. Sound equitable to me, just how it would be implemented and managed would be an issue, but guess it would be no more so than the way the court system is now.


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