Archive for October 16th, 2010

Problems of punishment

| 16/10/2010 | 26 Comments

It’s very easy in times of rising crime to get carried away when it comes to punishment. The mob mentality is “hang ‘em and flog ‘em” when society manages to apprehend and convict those who have done wrong. However, it is always important to consider the problems associated with long prison terms as a form of punishment, and despite the severity of a specific crime, long sentences are not always beneficial to society.

There was no doubt in my mind that there would be hue and cry regarding the sentences given to the four young teens on Friday but I believe the judge did exactly what he is supposed to do and considered all the circumstances. Looking further than those who are baying for blood, he saw four teenagers with considerable potential who had made a mistake – a serious one, no doubt — but their first and very likely their last encounter with the court system.
 
He recognised, contrary to popular belief, that these youngsters are not ‘thugs’ or a real danger to society, but four young people who for a combination of reasons found themselves committing a serious crime. Recognising their contrition, remorse, the fact that they had never committed a crime before and that they all had the potential to go on to a brighter future, he gave them a chance.
 
Sending these young people to jail for a long period in a system that currentlyhas no proper educational opportunities (it is nigh on impossible for prisoners who are illiterate to learn to read in the prison, never mind study for a degree) would have been a mistake.
 
Furthermore, putting four impressionable teenagers who are not really criminals in an environment full of professional wrongdoers is very likely to have the opposite affect of teaching them a lesson and perhaps teach them where they went wrong in the execution of their crime and how to do it better next time.
 
Prison is a punishment of last resort that serves society only by protecting it from those who are violent or habitual in their criminality, and in turn punishes them by removing their liberty. However, for habitual offenders with learning difficulties and other mental health problems who become institutionalised, sometimes prison is the only place where they can actually cope with life – a sad indictment on our community. The current prison system has no real deterrent affect nor does it have any rehabilitative qualities.
 
When people commit a crime they are rarely thinking of the relative prison terms attached to the crime as they do it – after all, they don’t expect to get caught. It is not really a deterrent to anyone. Law abiding citizens who are educated don’t commit crime just because they don’t want to go to jail. They don’t commit crime because they are smart enough to realize that crime undermines the overall quality of society, because they are able to empathise with their fellow human beings and because they seek to protect, rather than risk, the people they love and the lifestyles they have.
 
Most people (with obvious exceptions) who commit crime are less able to empathize with others, are not educated enough to understand the complexities of society and community and often have little to lose and have rarely been shown consistent unconditional love during their upbringing.  Once in the prison system, rehabilitation and by turn education, which is the most important tool in preventing crime, is virtually non-existent.
 
While prisoners are routinely put to work constructing and repairing the buildings at Northward or on the prison farm for full working days, a mere four hours per week is set aside for volunteers to go to the prison and teach inmates how to read. Over 80% of the prisoners at Northward are functionally illiterate – and then we wonder why they are criminals.
 
We need to maintain prison for violent offenders to protect society but we must remember its limitations in serving the wider public and its impact on the concept of law and order. For people who have something to lose and family and friends who love and care for them, even the shortest spell in jail is an enormous punishment for the individual and their families. For those who have nothing to lose it is of no real consequence and merely protects the rest of us from their violent or habitual criminality.
 
It’s far more useful if societies choose to make prisons places of real learning and rehabilitation, but few, with the exception of some in Scandinavia, do so. Most are nothing more than secure holding pens.
 
Placing young first time offenders who have the potential to be upstanding and positive members of the community in such places for any significant period is entirelypointless. Of course the young people need to know there are consequences for their actions and they must be punished, and having the threat of returning to jail with a suspended sentence once they have served six months will be more punishment to them than a life sentence to an institutionalised habitual offender. The issue that must be considered is that punishment is always relative and not absolute.
 
We have to be sensible about how we approach crime and punishment and understand what prison really is and stop kidding ourselves that it is either a deterrent or a place of rehabilitation. If we as a society really want to teach those who are at risk of offending or who have committed their first criminal act a lesson, we need to ask ourselves what that lesson should be and where and how it should be delivered. Personally I think it is rarely behind bars.

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