A Strong Response to Crime

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?


9 thoughts on “A Strong Response to Crime

  1. I believe in helping those who wish to change. However, not everyone desires rehabilitation. Criminal actions are a choice. No amount of money or time will help someone who does not want to be rehabilitated. This is a thorny issue and too deep to go into in the limited time I have to comment at work.


    1. If criminal actions are a choice they can be shown to be an inefficient choice. So the solution to people not wanting to be rehabilitated is to start by showing them their desire not to fully benefit from society is inefficient, then assist them in resolving the barriers to being the most efficient version of themselves.

      Most legal systems already contain a concept of insanity: a separation of crimes based on a social judgement of capability to make good choices. But the line is arbitrary. Someone who is legally insane due to abuse in childhood receives treatment; someone who is judged to only have impaired impulse control due to abuse is punished for it.


      1. And what about people who were traumatized and chose not to be criminals? I’m sorry, but I don’t buy the “I couldn’t help it” defence. I know that I was able to decide not to become a monster, I believe that everyone is able to make that choice. If anyone is truly unable to control their actions, then they are by definition beyond redemption and should simply be put to death, to protect the rest of us.


        1. To put it another way, I believe that refusing to hold people accountable for their crimes is not compassion, it is contempt. It is dehumanizing them, treating them as animals who cannot make a moral judgement. I don’t believe that it should be the business of the state to determine who is and is human.


          1. I am not saying don’t hold people accountable. I am saying help them to make better moral choices in the future.

            For example, studies of domestic abuse show a significant proportion of abusers came from abusive backgrounds; So – while it does not render them innocent – it seems clear being abused makes it harder to choose not to abuse others yourself. Therefore, giving abusers assistance to overcome the conditioning of the past is a social good.

            There are more than one factor that makes it easier or harder to make moral choices, so of course there are people who were traumatised and didn’t commit crimes. The power of good role-models and assistance from society and peers to prevent the disadvantaged turning to crime shows giving support to criminals to overcome the relics of the past is likely to reduce re-offending.


            1. Speaking as one who has been caught in the rehabilitation system and escaped from it, I think that most of the money and resources spent on such things, while well-meant, is counter-productive.

              You get the behavior that you reward. When the system is set up to lavish attention on criminals at the expense of law abiding citizens, then you are going to get more criminals and fewer law abiding citizens. That’s just simple economics. History has shown, in the US, anyway, that the more money you spend of rehabilitation, the more people show up to be rehabilitated.

              Which is in the best interests of criminals and those who make a living caring for them, but is kind of rough for folks who are trying to make an honest living.

              I could have a higher standard of living if I went back into the system and became a ward of the state, rather than working to support myself. That’s what we call a “perverse incentive.”


              1. If the only choices were spend money on helping criminals or on helping law-abiding citizens it might incentive getting into the system. However, I do not believe they are.

                There are plenty of things less important than reducing crime and increasing the mental well-being of citizens: having such a large cache of nuclear weapons for example. Certainly in the United Kingdom the magnitude of spending on nuclear weapons means a proportionally small reduction would free up a significant sum.

                It is probably not possible to fully fund everything to begin with, but reducing crime will reduce the future cost of criminal justice, freeing up capital to invest in better support for all citizens.


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