REPLY #3 TO
"CRIME AND PUNISHMENT"
are parts of the original essay (or a subsequent reply) to which the respondent has directed his 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
(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
(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
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
(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
(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?