Monday, December 31, 2012

Retributive Justice

I've been thinking about justice a lot lately, and what we expect to happen when someone does something wrong. There are a few things we can focus on: making sure those who have been wronged are made whole, making sure those who have done wrong are punished, and making sure our solution leads to a better society. There are certainly times when these goals coincide, when one person steals from another for example. We can have the thief repay the victim for what was stolen, and add a bit for their trouble. This serves to make the victim whole, and if the extra is the right amount, it should discourage people from stealing in the future.

Of course, it isn't always so easy. If someone is raped or beaten to a pulp, it might not really be possible to make them whole. We will obviously try to do what we can for the victim, make sure they get medical care and some compensation for lost work and such, but there is definitely a part of us that wants to make sure the criminal gets punished. There is a certain amount that this will also make society better by making people think twice before committing such a crime, but I'm not sure how far this goes (I'm sure we've all heard that the death penalty is not a deterrent). But I think people are generally focused on the punishment side of things.

I can understand why people want to focus on punishment, when I hear about certain crimes (like rape) within a few seconds my mind goes toward how horrible it must have been for that woman, then I can imagine it happening to someone I know and care about, then I immediately want the guy to be punished. I'll have a little fantasy of kicking the guy repeatedly in the balls, or some other such thing. Fuck that guy. It is easy to just focus on making sure he winds up in jail and leave it at that. The problem with spending our focus on punishment is that we often don't make our society better, and we might even make it worse. If we send them to jail and don't worry about what happens to them while they are there, how will it improve our society when they get out? We should make sure their time in prison is actually rehabilitation and not just punishment. Is it possible to rehabilitate a rapist? I don't know, but I'm pretty sure our current prisons are terrible enough that they only make criminals worse.

When it comes to justice, the bible seems to focus mostly on the punishment side of things rather than rehabilitation. Just look at Sodom and Gomorrah or Noah's flood. The bible expects us to believe that everyone in those cities were evil, or in the case of the flood, everyone on earth except for 8 people were evil and deserved to die. There doesn't seem to be a lot of effort put towards bringing those people around, making them realize that they have lead a bad life and change things. No, they are just killed. Sometimes I wonder if these ideas are baked into the brains of the average believer in this country. Perhaps that is why we are so focused on punishment in this country and so few people seem to be concerned with the conditions within the prisons.


  1. That's a tough subject, for sure. You're right that God certainly didn't seem to be concerned with rehabilitation. I'm sure that plays some role in neglecting that option.

    A lot of it may just come from old-school parenting too. You know, you steal a cooking from the cookie jar, and you get spanked for it. There's no rehabilitation besides pointing out the transgression and the application of the punishment. In that style of parenting, you leave it up to the kid to get the point and rehabilitate himself to avoid such transgressions. And most kids can do just that, which is probably why the prison-for-punishment model prevails. But I think when we are talking about adult criminals, you practically have to rewire the brain and reset their world view to be rehabilitated, which is hard for them to do on their own, and will not be successful if the criminal is resistant to that effort.

    I don't know what the right answer is, but I think we are making great strides in psychology today which may make rehabilitation a much more efficient and practical process in the coming decades. At least that's my hope. :-)

  2. Hmmm, this begs the question as to what rehabilitation is. Is it behavior modification or is it more profound.

    In the case of parenting (in the cookie jar example) I imagine the intent is actually behavior modification, assuming the more fundamental characteristics such as love, respect and empathy have been otherwise ingrained (not really "leaving it up to the kid" as it were).

    So how does society deal with the difference between teaching a person not to do something hurtful because it has consequences and teaching a person not to want to do hurtful things (for reasons beyond their own skin)?

    I'm not sure "society" has that responsibility (or even the capability). If this is true then behavior modification (punishment) is all that's left.

    Can you propose a different workable option?

    David Holland

  3. Great comments guys.

    dsholland, I like your point about the difference between teaching someone to not do something versus to not want to do something. I'm not really sure what the answer to that would be, but my instinct is that there are probably some people who could learn to not want to do things, there are probably some people who are pragmatic and could just learn to not do things, and then there are some who are basically hopeless. Obviously, the younger they are the better for rehabilitation.

    I like TWF's cookie jar example, lets say a child has stolen cookies and you spank him, he might learn to not do it, but apart from not wanting to get spanked again, he want learn to not steal them, right?

    On the other hand, what if you explain to the child what the consequences are for other people? By stealing the cookies, their siblings can't get their share of the cookies. Maybe try to have them think about how they would feel if they were the one who unfairly didn't get cookies. The obviously won't work for all children, but perhaps some had never considered other points of view, it could work for some kids. Also, you could use both punishment styles in conjunction.

    Back to the prison example, my understanding is that it is not terribly uncommon for someone to spend a few years in jail for something not super terrible (say drug charges or something) and they leave prison as a hardened criminal because of their time in there. Since we throw people in there and don't care what the conditions are like, people will sometimes come out worse than when they went in.

    Back to your specific question David, do I have different solutions, I have a few ideas. For example, people who are in for simple drug possession should have their time focused on recovery. Also, my understanding is a lot of people who are released from prison come out with basically no skills and are prepared for the outside. Perhaps we could do some kind of simple education type things within prison so at least their time won't be completely wasted. Suppose a guy comes to prison and doesn't even know how to read, wouldn't it be best if he was able to learn that skill by the time he gets out?

    those are just a few ideas, I'm sure people more familiar with our prison system would have better answers than me, but I really think if,, as a society, we had a mentality to look for things we could do that would give our ex-cons better outcomes, it would be better for everyone.

  4. Prison is a terrible place not simply because you are held there, the population of the prison has a definite demographic. This seems unavoidable unless you have people willing to go to prison for altruistic reasons (prison ministry/visitation is one example of that on a small scale). Until you can fix that problem I'm not sure you can do a lot about people coming out worse than they went in.

    Also that demographic is is less likely to garner strong support when it comes time to divvy up the resources used for schools, roads and health/safety budgets (human nature being what it is).

    So what you need is individuals committed to making the resources that are available as effective as they can be. That means the people responsible for those institutions. This too is a human problem, how to attract the kind of person who would/could provide the services in an effective manner needed to uplift their charges? This part of what makes the problem intractable.

    To be clear I am not saying nothing can be done, just trying to highlight what is really required. The golden rule must be implemented by individuals. "Society" is a blunt instrument.

  5. You are absolutely right, given the people that are generally going to be found in prison, we should probably expect that simply being around them so much would make one worse off. It's really a shame but probably a reality. I bet that there are things we could do that would be better than the current situation, but you do a great job of highlighting why it is a problem that we probably can't really solve exactly, as much as we could make it less bad.

    You also make a great point when it comes to resource management, I do think it would be a great thing to provide some kind of education type things for the prisoners, but it is hard to justify allocating resources to that when our schools need so much help. Very difficult problems. I guess my only thoughts on that are that we should be more discriminating with who we throw in jail. For example, people who are generally just users (not dealers) should probably not be thrown in jail, but instead treatment.

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