Crime and Punishment – we all need to grow up

This was originally published on my old blog on 28 July 2013.

During my recent cycling trip from Derry to Ranafast, I took a ferry across Lough Swilly. I started chatting to someone on board, who, it turns out, works as a prison guard. In the space of 45 minutes, he gave me a glimpse into a world of sorrow. J doesn’t so much hate his job as feels despairing over it. He came across as a surprisingly sensitive and insightful young man. To his mind, the Irish prison system is a revolving door, with your certainty of returning having more to do with whether you have money and status in society than with the nature of your crimes.

Why is this so? Because we as a society are still juvenile in our perception of justice. When someone does something wrong, they must be punished, and this will deter them from being naughty again. It’s an immature view which destroys the lives of criminals, victims, and families on both sides of the divide. J sees offenders retained in prison whose crimes were rooted in so many things other than simply being evil. He sees these basically decent human beings being “punished”, released into completely unchanged circumstances, which encourage them to offend again, and return to prison to be “punished” again.

He sees offenders released, having “paid their dues to society”, who it is madness to let into the world outside again as the crack in their psyche which compelled them to offend has remained unaddressed during their incarceration, if not aggravated.

The vast majority of us have started understanding that there are better ways to correct children’s behaviour than punishment. We as parents increasingly learn to identify the root of the misbehaviour and teach the child to handle stressors in an acceptable way. We have also matured from beating the living daylights out of a child who doesn’t behave the way we feel is acceptable, to realising there are such things as autism, ADD, dyslexia, and many others. We have stopped simply forcing compliance, and started acknowledging that children are human beings, who are dramatically influenced by their environment (including family etc.) and physiology.

So why is it so difficult to extend this understanding to adults?

Instead of acting like adults, we all turn into squealing infants when it comes to crime. We demand punishment, to satisfy our primitive need for revenge. We don’t think in terms of meeting the needs of the offended. We seldom if ever think of the future wellbeing of society, as is evidenced in the shocking incidents of rapists or murderers who are clearly unhinged being released – because hey, they’ve paid their dues – only to re-offend.

If we were to use the higher brain which distinguishes us from animals, we would approach crime as a two-pronged challenge: healing the victim, and correcting the perpetrator. Offenders should be assessed and a plan for rehabilitation should be put in place. Instead of a standard x year sentence for, say, murder, the question should be asked whether this person can ever safely be trusted to live in general society without harming others. If yes, how? Such offenders must be rehabilitated, then released back into society with every chance (and support) of living a productive life which contributes to the common good. If no, facilities should exist in which such persons can live a meaningful life segregated from general society, rather than being caged like animals as criminals are at present.

We hurt nobody but ourselves with the insane way offenders are dealt with at present. Those with potential are crushed, those who are dangerous are honed, and those who are privileged in social status get away with murder. Sometimes literally.