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.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Jack, Thoughtful as usual. Still could see a management headache. I think with these level of folks it would be more practical to eliminate them from the mix. Summery execution comes to mind or at least exile to a desert island environment where the could provide there own shelter and grow there own food. Those that can will survive those that can't, well sorry about there luck.
    Maybe I just think to black and white.


I welcome your comments.