Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Crime and Punishment

This story reminds me of how messed up the standard view of criminal justice is.  Everyone seems obsessed by what is going on in the mind of the defendant.  The decision to put him to death or not was based entirely on speculations about what was going on in his mind at the time of the crime.

This is wrong for several reasons.  It is fundamentally impossible to know what is going on in someone else's mind, and even if you could know it, the information has very little value.  Arguing about intention or guilt or culpability makes about as much sense as arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  Both are exercises in the discussion of unobservable things that have no value in explaining the events we observe.

This obsession with intention is a natural consequence of a system based on the idea of 'punishment'.  The argument is that if someone had a certain state of mind during the crime, he is guilty and mush be punished, but if he had a different state of mind, he is diseased and should not be punished.  The fact that questions of punishment, and of who deserves to be punished,  devolve into this kind of philosophical hair-splitting is an indication that the entire concept is flawed.

The purpose of a criminal justice system is to prevent crime.  Period.  All decisions about what to do with someone who has committed a crime should be based on preventing future crimes, and nothing else.  There are two aspects to this.  There is the chance that the person who committed one crime will commit another if released into society.  Then, there is the effect that the sentence will have on other people who might be considering committing a crime.

For example, suppose there is a woman who has killed her husband after discovering he cheated on her.  Aside from this one incident, she is perfectly law-abiding, and we know that she is no threat to anyone who is not married to her and a philanderer.  If we ignore questions of precedent, then it is perfectly logical to simply release her and forbid her from marrying anyone.  After all, society gains nothing by sending her to jail.  She will not commit any crimes.  The only reason to impose larger costs to her is to deter future women who are in that same situation.  If we send her to jail, then we are implicitly assuming that other women in a similar situation will rationally weigh the costs and benefits of killing the husband, and that the prospect of going to jail will discourage the women from committing the murder.

However, this deterrent becomes useless if she can get out of jail by claiming any kind of mental condition that can be faked or has an unclear diagnosis.  Future women will then kill the husband and fake the condition, or hire a sympathetic doctor to diagnose it.  And if the condition is unambiguous, the situation becomes even worse.  People who know they have the condition will feel free to commit crimes, knowing that they will not be punished.  If this happens with any regularity, then society will demand that all people with the condition be identified and pre-emptively locked up.

The only rule that makes any sense is for all people who commit a crime to get the same sentence, regardless of mental state, medical condition, or circumstance.  The punishment should fit the crime, and it should apply to all people equally. 

This will mean that the mentally incompetent will get sentenced along with everyone else.  The way to make this not be a bad thing is to treat all jail time, not as punishment, but as a medical quarantine.  Really, we should just assume that anyone who is observed to commit a crime is mentally defective in some way.  We should treat them as if they had, through no fault of their own, gotten some really nasty and really communicable disease and had to be locked up to protect other people.  The concept of 'jail' should cease to exist, and be replaced with humane asylums.  With a proper emphasis on compassion and treatment, we can try to cure whatever is wrong with them, making them less dangerous.  And if they do have to be locked up for the rest of their lives, as will often be necessary, there is no reason to torture them in the process.

I think that the focus on punishment exists because we all know that jails are horrible, horrible places.  Even if you ignore the humanity and rights of the convicts, it is a fact that jail tends to make people more, not less, likely to commit crimes.  They fail at their primary purpose.  This is to be expected, because it is a well-known fact that putting people in really bad environments causes them to become dysfunctional, insane, and/or criminal.

People want to believe that the world, our government, and our society are good and just.  This is a known psychological flaw.  When faced with information about the horror of jail, people look for an explanation that allows them to continue believing that the world is just.  They usually settle on "Criminals are bad people and they deserve what is happening to them."

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