With Chris Grayling claiming yesterday that the ban on (among other things) sending books to UK prisoners is a reasonable and proportionate response to smuggling, the debate looks set to continue for some time. Viewed economically, his statement is not without weight; however, this debate is only a smaller part of a wider question: what is the purpose of criminal justice?
The comment threads on this issue (and prisons in general) are filled with assertions that states should seek to rehabilitate criminals and that criminals must be punished (with the balance between depending on the core audience of sites). While this is an interesting debate in its own right, criminal justice is more than a debate between these two aims.
Beneath the artificially reported duality of trendy liberal vs vengeful thug are a series of more subtle aims which place different weight on the present and future; on social rights and liberties; and the inherent nature of humanity. Some of these aims are clearly in conflict while others work well together.
Retribution – the criminal has hurt society, so society strikes back.
Deterrence – potential criminals choose not to act for fear of the potential consequences.
Isolation – the criminal is a risk to society, so society excludes them.
Restitution – the criminal has taken from society, so society extracts payment.
Rehabilitation – the criminal committed the crime due to issues in their life, so society helps them resolve the issues.
These different aims reveal a more complex question than helping or punishing: is the system about the individual criminal or protecting society? Is the system about preventing crime or resolving existing crimes?
Having been attacked myself, I have felt the visceral desire to lash out at the criminals who hurt me; to make criminality something that is avoided at all costs. So, I understand why people would instinctively want to deny criminals rights, or even make an example of them so others do not commit the same acts.
However, making punishments harsh can be counter productive: the more unpleasant being caught is, the more motivation you have to commit other crimes to cover your tracks; beyond a certain point, threatening or even hurting witnesses moves from “why?” to “why not?”.
As the presence of crime in times and places of extreme punishment show, the possibility of really unpleasant retribution if you commit a crime is similarly bad at preventing crime. The human mind is shockingly bad a judging risk; as any police officer will tell you, many criminals never expected to get caught.
Set against rule by force is rule for social benefit. Both isolation and restitution take as their goal making society better: one by removing a future problem and the other by attempting to add something to balance the lost value.
It is self-evident isolating every criminal does not work alone, and poses the same risk as applying severe sanctions as punishment or deterrence.
Restitution seems a sound goal. Indeed it is the same goal of a large part of civil law; the person who has caused an issue pays a cost in money or action to remove a burden from the innocent. However, with or without the added complexity of balancing the suitable repayment toward an individual with the suitable repayment for harming society as a whole, for many crimes there is no payment or act that can remove the actual result of the crime: even taking on all of a victim’s duties for life will not replace them emotionally; conversely, spending a few hours in a drug-fuelled stupor has only harmed the user.
Which leaves, rehabilitation: addressing the issues that make the criminal not believe society is beneficial. Instead of a person constrained by the fear of consequences or motivated by completing externally-imposed pseudo-corrections, society gains someone who actually believes we are stronger together than alone.
So, in a perfect world, rehabilitation being the only aim which grows from the purpose of society rather than individual fears or lusts, is the best aim for criminal justice.
However, as Chris Grayling’s statement shows, we do not live in a perfect world. There is a cost in money and effort to criminal justice. While seeking to rehabilitate is a social good, stepping back where the cost is greater than the benefit can be excused.
But before we can consider the cost to benefit of various criminal sanctions, we must see the debate is more than an either/or. About replacing personal weakness with social strength.
Do you believe there are acts so heinous the greatest benefit does not come from rehabilitation? Do you believe there is no cost too great to help a criminal overcome the obstacles to productive participation?