Crime and Punishment

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

Theodore Dalrymple shares a conversation on crime and punishment:

Recently in my house in France I had two English guests, one who was what might be called a hard-liner with regard to crime, and the other a liberal. By analogy with the Cold War, we might even call them the Hawk and the Dove.

The Dove, of course, was concerned about the causes of crime. These were multiple and complex, not to be fully apprehended by the mind of Man, but nevertheless connected in some way with social injustice. The evident fact of unmerited inequalities in our societies was enough to provoke crime. (Who will deny that, even in a meritocracy, some are born rich, others achieve riches, while others have riches thrust upon them?) On this view, then, crime is an inchoate attempt at restoring perfect justice to the universe.

In favour of the Dove’s outlook may be mentioned the equally indisputable fact that most criminals emerge from highly unfavourable circumstances, circumstances that they did little or nothing themselves to create. In my career as a doctor in prison, I did meet a few criminals who were born with the silver spoon in their mouth, and who went to the bad despite their advantages; but their number was trifling by comparison with that of those who experienced deprivation, cruelty, hardship or violence in their childhood. It seems elementary humanity, therefore, to have some sympathy with and for them, and not to victimise them further by condoning punishment. A better approach would be to create social conditions in which there was no childhood deprivation, hardship etc. Punishment is at best a plaster over an unhealing wound, and will never eliminate crime. It is the causes of crime that need to be addressed.

The Hawk would have none of this, of course. Leaving aside the Dove’s failure to distinguish between unfairness and injustice (a very large philosophical topic), he pointed out that if it was true that most criminals were deprived in their childhood, it was also true that most people who were deprived in their childhood were not criminals. There is therefore considerable margin for the operation of what is usually called free will. Moreover, if the connection between life history and crime were as described, it could as easily lead to the most illiberal conclusions as to liberal ones.

If it is really true that certain childhood conditions lead inexorably to criminality then, in the absence of any proven technique to break the connexion, this is as much an argument for preventive detention as for leniency. There is, of course, no such technique. Since society must protect itself from criminals, the presence of a deprived background would constitute an argument for longer, not shorter, prison sentences.

The Hawk pointed out, furthermore, that one must not confuse the causes of crime with the appropriate response to criminality once it has developed. And this is so even if one disregards the probability that how society responds to crime is one of the factors a person takes into account when deciding to commit a crime (the decision so to commit being the proximate cause of all crime).

Thus, if as a matter of fact, imprisonment prevents the criminal from re-offending, it is quite beside the point that he commits crime in the first place because (shall we say) his mother did not love him enough in childhood. What society is interested in is the prevention of further crime; it cannot engage upon the task of giving him a different past or (slightly less impossible, perhaps) of nullifying the effect of that past.

The Hawk then horrified the Dove further by citing evidence that, contrary to what is often said, prison is actually very effective in the suppression of crime. Indeed, it is the only thing that is effective. For example, offenders sent to prison the first time they are caught (which, of course, is rarely the first time they offend) have a recidivism rate lower than those who receive other kinds of sentence.

Moreover, prison is not a university of crime as is often alleged. If it were, one might expect that prisoners sentenced to longer terms had higher degrees in crime: that is to say, were more likely to re-offend. But in fact they are less likely to do so; prison is therefore the place where criminals learn (eventually, for they are not quick learners on the whole) not to re-offend.

But, said the Dove, if what the Hawk was saying were true (and the Hawk, being a professional writer on the subject had devoted much more time to the study of it than the Dove had done), it would lead naturally to conditions in Europe with regard to imprisonment that resembled those in America – and the Dove would hate that, indeed could think of nothing worse or less acceptable.

This, I need hardly say, was not the end of the discussion. What exactly, asked the Hawk, as so terrible about the American example? Well, said the Dove, they have more than two million prisoners over there. But what is terrible about that, asked the Hawk, if they have all been sent there by due process and are, in fact, criminals (except for those mistakes that are consequent upon any system of criminal justice whatsoever)?

But some races are imprisoned more than others, said the Dove; this hardly seems fair. But, said the Hawk, a differential rate of imprisonment is not in itself evidence of injustice; one would hardly wish to increase the number of Chinese in American prisons simply to bring their proportion up to that in the general population.

The Hawk was a passionate bird, and began to tremble with excitement (I know the symptoms well, and try, somewhat unsuccessfully, to control them in myself). He pointed out that it is completely absurd to dwell on the prison population as a proportion of the general population. To have but one prisoner in a country in which there had never been a crime would be an outrage. What counted was not the prison population as a proportion of the general population, therefore, but the prison population in relation to the number of crimes committed.

Now if Britain, which has gone in half a century from being a country with a low crime rate to one with among the highest rates of crime in the western world had the same sentencing policy as Spain – that is to say, if it sent people to prison for the same reasons and for the same length of time as in Spain – its prison population would be not 80,000 but 400,000. Not coincidentally, Spain is a country whose crime rate is – yes, about one fifth of Britain’s. Furthermore, said the Hawk, if Britain had 400,000 prisoners, it would have the same proportion of the population in prison as – yes, the United States.

Furthermore, it has been estimated that if Britain now had the same sentencing policies as it had in Edwardian times, its prison population would be – well, about 400,000. According to the Hawk, the crime rate in Britain started its vertiginous rise after, and not before, the sentencing policy became weaker, as a result of years of Dove-ish propagandizing; I did not know enough either to agree or to disagree with his historical analysis, but I (who was much more in sympathy with the Hawk than the Dove) added my mite, to the effect that to fail properly to punish and disable criminals from committing further crimes was a failure to protect the poor, given two cardinal facts: first, that if it is true that the vast majority of criminals are poor, so it is also true that the vast majority of their victims are also poor; second, that the class of victim is always very much larger than the class of perpetrator.

Perhaps it will come as no surprise to learn that no minds were changed in the course of this argument: after all, one argues for victory, not for truth. However, I suspect that the Dove might be slightly less dove-ish in the future, should the argument recur in other circumstances and surroundings, with other people, without (for temperamental reasons) undergoing a full avian metamorphosis. For those with a soft heart, the problem with the Hawk’s argument is this: that while long imprisonment causes tangible distress to certain easily-imagined individuals, the harm therefore appearing concrete, the people to whom good is done by the use of imprisonment because they are prevented from becoming victims of crime remain shadowy, and therefore the good is purely abstract or notional. It is for this reason that Hawks always have a public relations problem.

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