Monday, November 16, 2009

Divinipotent About Crime and Punishment

"Whenever any American life is taken by another unnecessarily — whether it is done in the name of the law or in defiance of the an attack of violence or in response to violence — the whole nation is degraded."
~ Robert Kennedy

Ever since the execution of D.C. sniper John Allen Muhammad last Wednesday, Divinipotent Daily has been consumed with issues of crime and punishment. Today's will be my last post on the subject (at least for now).

No matter where we stand on the death penalty, we are all affected by the larger issue of criminal sentencing. Money and skin color are hugely influential in sentencing decisions; punishments for similar crimes, even for first offenses, vary widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and even within jurisdictions. We also see inconsistencies in parole, including the release of violent criminals simply to relieve prison overcrowding. We see false convictions — according to the Death Penalty Information Center, 139 people have been released from death row since 1973. And then there is the tremendously high financial cost of death penalty cases, which is making some states wish they could back away from executions or drastically limit the appeals process (which, given the numbers of innocent people already discovered on death row, would logically lead to the deaths of the wrongly convicted).

“Punishment is not for revenge, but to lessen crime and reform the criminal.”
~ Euripides

Euripides would be a lonely man in many parts of the U.S. today. Here and elsewhere, the philosophy of imprisonment is a pendulum that swings from rehabilitation/reform to vengeance/retribution — which is where we are now, with our three strikes laws and executions. Whatever we are doing, we are certainly not deterring violent crime — statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Justice (see chart) make that clear.

Some prominent legal minds are apparently so frustrated by our judicial system's ineffectiveness that they are revisiting more primitive forms of punishment. In 1976, while director of a group called the Committee on Incarceration, legal philosopher and current Cambridge University Professor Andrew Von Hirsch wrote a book called Doing Justice: The Choice of Punishments. The book considered the idea that “just deserts” sentencing — essentially a return to the eye-for-an-eye model of justice — is worth examining as an alternative to arbitrarily long (thus unfair) prison terms. The Committee ultimately rejected the idea for several reasons, including the fact that pain is too subjective to be meted out fairly and, ultimately, "intentional corporal maltreatment evokes in its victim intense feelings of humiliation and terror....Ought a civilized state ever to visit such mortifications?"

“Whipping and abuse are like laudanum: you have to double the dose as the sensibilities decline.”
~ Harriet Beecher Stowe

I would like to believe that most modern humans are repulsed by the idea of government-mandated rapes of rapists, beatings of muggers and amputations of the hands of thieves. For those who find such things barbaric but still crave vengeance, Graeme Newman, a professor at the SUNY Albany’s School of Criminal Justice, advocates a sanitized alternative. The 1995 revision of his book Just and Painful, A Case for the Corporal Punishment of Criminals advocates administering pain via controlled electrical shock treatments as an alternative to official beatings, rapes, mutilations and long prison sentences. The macabre illustration above appears on Professor Newman's section of the SUNY Albany Web site. It's so over the top, it made me wonder if he is playing with us — asking us to face our deepest urges for vengeance, no matter how ugly. Unfortunately, his book indicates he is quite serious.

When people try to justify harsh punishment, especially capital punishment, claims about the good of society start flying. For example, a few years ago Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch made without irony the mind-boggling statement that "Capital punishment is our society's recognition of the sanctity of human life." Others who favor physical punishment of criminals argue that it makes crime victims feel avenged and, by some pretzel logic, that means it's good for society.

Divinipotent Daily has been a crime victim — held up with a gun to my head and robbed one evening ten or twelve years ago. Did I want these people caught? You bet; I didn't want them doing the same thing to anybody else. But more than anything, I wanted my stuff back. And when I say "my stuff" I mean not only my physical possessions but my sense of safety. I wanted to feel like I could walk down my own street at 8:45 in the evening without having to look over my shoulder. A restoration to the state of innocence we had before the crime is what every victim really wants, and it's the one thing we can never have. Surely, in 2009, we can think of a better way to exorcise our frustration than by inflicting pain on our victimizers.

But let's say we do go back to eye-for-an-eye justice. One of the primary justifications is shorter prison sentences; so, what happens to the rest of us when the criminals are released? We already know quite a bit about the way children react to corporal punishment. To quote a release issued by the American Psychological Association, "Corporal punishment on its own does not teach children right from wrong. Secondly, although it makes children afraid to disobey when parents are present, when parents are not present to administer the punishment those same children will misbehave."

“Men simply copied the realities of their hearts when they built prisons.”
~ Richard Wright

While gruesome discussions about punishment continue in the halls of criminal justice, brain scientists are down the road in their laboratories searching for physical indicators of criminal behavior with fMRIs, PET scanners and test tubes. So far, most scientists agree that head trauma, particularly damage to the frontal lobes, correlates strongly with violent behavior. Other theories involve DNA mutations and nutritional deficiencies during key stages of development. All of this obviously raises uncomfortable questions about how responsible certain criminals are for their crimes.

Further muddying the conversation is rising awareness that pedophiles, psychopaths and criminal sociopaths seem to continue their criminal ways no matter what type of rehabilitation or retribution they are subjected to. What are we to do with them?

“The calculated killing of a human being by the state involves, by its very nature, an absolute denial of the executed person’s humanity. The most vile murder does not, in my view, release the state from constitutional restraint on the destruction of human dignity.” 
~ U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan

Criminal punishment is a huge and disturbing issue, and Divinipotent Daily does not pretend to have answers. However, I do have a question: Given what we now know, and what we are continuing to learn about criminal behavior, isn’t it time that we, as a society, started a serious conversation about crime and punishment?

“Knowing others is wisdom; Knowing the self is enlightenment; Mastering others requires force; Mastering the self needs strength.”
~ Lao Tzu

Cooincidentally, the latest post on the wonderful blog Bibliodyssey is titled "Theater of Cruelty." It includes more than twenty illustrations by Richard Verstegan (a/k/a Richard Rowlands), "a Catholic Anglo-Dutch antiquarian, goldsmith and book publisher" who lived from approximately 1548 to 1636. The illustrations depict gruesome tortures that were allegedly visited on unlucky Catholics by their fellow humans over the years. It's a good reminder of what state-sanctioned revenge can look like.

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