Night Owl Mk. II

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Boldfaced statements are parts of the original essay (or a subsequent reply) to which the respondent has directed his comments.

Italicized/emphasized comments prefaced by (R) are those of the respondent and are presented unedited.

My replies appear under the respondent's comments in blue text and are prefaced by my initials (MB).

(R) I read your Crime and Punishment essay quite a while ago and I've been thinking about it on and off since then.
(MB) I'm glad that you've finally decided to share your thoughts on the subject. Let's see what you have to say...

(R) I find that I agree with much of what you say, but nevertheless I think you take the wrong approach. The title of your essay gives you away. Crime and the Legal system would be better - Crime and Society would be best.
(MB) Actually, the title of my essay accurately describes the focus of my concern on this issue. I have no bones to pick here with our overall system of criminal justice, nor do I wish to philosophize upon the effect of crime on society. My concern is what I consider to be a disturbing trend in the punishment and treatment of convicted criminals and how I think things could be improved.

(R) (If you smell liberalism here you're dead right - but keep reading, maybe you're in for one or two surprises!)
(MB) I don't smell anything yet...*grin*...and I'm certainly prepared to consider whatever surprises may pop up. Who knows? Maybe the "surprises" won't be!

(R) What I mean is that if you want to discuss crime and punishment, you need to take a step back and examine the whole picture. The fundamental question that you do not ask is "Why the hell do we have a legal system?" Stupid question, you might think - to administer justice of course. But I don't think such a simple answer will serve us very well in the fight against crime.
(MB) I'm quite satisfied with the general way in which our legal system is structured. Yes, it is a bit overblown. Yes, it can be rather glacial and frustrating in its proceedings. But, its basic fundamentals are sound and rather difficult to argue against. I'm not trying to argue for changes in the rules of evidence or other things that will make it easier to convict criminals. My concerns are directed towards what happens *after* the criminal has been convicted by the system.

(R) I think the legal system - and all other parts of society which deal with crime - should adress the following four issues, in descending order of importance:
    1: Reduce crime to a minimum
    2: Recompensate and care for victims of crime
    3: Punish criminals
    4: Satisfy victims of crime, their relatives and the general population in their desire for "justice" - aka vengeance

(MB) I agree with you on all points. I guess the real questions are in the details of how best to accomplish those goals.

(R) I think it is extremely important to make the statement that the whole point of having a legal sytem is to REDUCE CRIME. While the three subsequent issues are legitimate and deserve some attention, they are trivial compared to the first.
(MB) I believe that the main need for a legal system is to establish and define methods for resolving disputes between people. These can be both civil and criminal in nature. The legal system accepts that crimes will happen. Punishments for those convicted of crimes are weighted in accordance with the severity of the crime. To use a common euphemism, the criminal is supposed to "pay his debt to society". Along with that is the consideration of deterrence. Ideally, the punishments are supposed to be severe enough to deter the potential criminal from committing the crime in the first place. While no conceivable punishment will deter all potential criminals, it is hoped that a large percentage (if not the majority) of crimes could be prevented if the potential criminal fears the punishment more than he desires whatever he might gain by committing the crime.

(R) Essentially all discussions about crime I've been in, or witnessed, get stuck on punishment, whether it should be hard or very hard, and whether murdurers should hang. Personally I just don't care. It's not importmant. The one important thing is to REDUCE CRIME. And it seems like there is a very weak, even non-existant, relation between crime and punishment.
(MB) The biggest problem in determining such a relationship is that there is no accurate way of measuring how many crimes are *not* committed due to the deterrent effect of potential punishments. One can not simply look at numbers or rates for crimes that *are* committed and determine whether or not punishments are having any effect.

(R) In Sweden, where I live, the death penalty was abolished in the 20's. During the forty following years, homocide was at its lowest - ever. Since the 60's the rate of murder has been climbing, but it's still much lower than it is in the US. Today, the maximum penalty for murder is "life", which in practice seldom exceeds 12 years. It is not uncommon for a prisoner found guilty of murder to be released after five years in prison. Compared to the US, these sentences are almost ridiculously lenient. But a Swede is still not even half as likely to kill someone in cold blood as an American.
(MB) There are many factors other than the potential punishment for murder that will contribute to murder rates between different countries or societies. I don't think that one would get too much argument if he was to say that American society is inherently more prone to violent behavior than is Swedish society. Actually, we have a rather long history of glorifying violence and we have an unfortunate tendency to accept the notion that "the end justifies the means" when dealing with problems or disputes. I shudder to think what might happen to murder rates in America if our legal system adopted the Swedish policies.

(R) This proves conclusively that there are other factors which are so much more important in deciding the overall rate of crime that arguing about punishment is purely a waste of time.
(MB) I agree that many factors must be taken into consideration. However, it far from clear that punishment is not at or near the top of the list.

(R) So, how do you reduce crime? It should be self-evident that before you start answering such a question you need to understand why people commit crimes. You need to understand, and then you need to DO something about the environment, the society in which crime grows. And yes, I think crime is largely the result of poverty, misery and a generally merciless community. I think a country gets the criminals it deserves.
(MB) I agree. Education will go a lot further to reduce crime than will any system of punishments. However, when education fails or is ignored, other methods must be in place.

(R) Having said that, I still think a criminal is responsible for his acts and should face the consequences. I agree with you when you say that someone who violates the rights of another also gives up his own rights.
(MB) To me, this seems so obvious that I can't see how anybody can argue against it.

(R) But if you want people not to commit crimes, you need to improve their situation, give them a chance to take themselves out of desperation in a law-abiding manner. (You might remark that in America everyone has a chance, but many people, right or wrong, don't feel that way.)
(MB) That's right. But, just because somebody "feels that way" doesn't mean that his feelings are justified. Sure, it's a given that in any society which uses a capitalistic economic system, there will be "haves" and "have nots". But, the key is whether or not the system itself automatically and inevitably locks certain people out from any chance of succeeding or improving their lot -- and it clearly doesn't.     I won't deny that some people will find it more difficult than others to succeed. However, that doesn't mean that the opportunites do not exist. It just means that some people will need to work harder and longer. There are *far* too many examples of success through hard work over many years for me to give much credence to the whining of those who give up or refuse to make the effort. There are also *far* too many examples of people who don't make the effort because the available jobs just don't appeal to them or the level of effort required to do them is "too much". In no way, does this justify the crimes that such people may commit.

(R) Clamouring for longer sentences and harsher treatment of inmates might be righteous, but it won't yield any results... at all.
(MB) Again, that's far from being clear. In fact, the examples that can be drawn from Islamic nations would dispute such an assertion rather forcefully. I have witnessed this first-hand during my 15-month tour of duty in Turkey. The deterrent force of Islamic law is very profound, yet it does not result in anything that might be labeled a "police state". While there, I did not feel that my freedom was restricted or that I was being oppressed. On the contrary, I greatly enjoyed some of the benefits gained by their system.     For example, I could walk alone along any street in Izmir (a city of 3 million people) any time of the day or night with no fear of being attacked and robbed. I can't do that in any city of any appreciable size here in the United States. Why not? The population of Izmir is, on the average, much worse off economically than is the population of any city in the US. It seems obvious to me that potential street criminals in the US don't fear the punishments that they might face from our criminal justice system. In fact, US prisons might actually *improve* their lives. This certainly can't be said for Turkish prisons!

(R) Well, it's getting late and I'm off to get some sleep. It'll be very interesting to read your answer to this one!
(MB) Here it is. What do you think?

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