Conservative Criminal “Science”

Dom, over at Sentiments of Rationality writes:

“A good psychologist knows that punishments are most effective if they are swift, certain, and severe. In our current system, this is often not the case with punishments. It’s easy, particularly for first-time offenders, to get off with a light sentence or no sentence at all. It would be in our interest (and theirs!), however, to discourage first-time offenders from getting into a habit of committing crimes. If they can get away with it, that serves as an incentive to repeat criminal activities.”

I fail to see how incarceration could ever accomplish the kinds of Skinner-box results that he describes. We use these strategies on children because adults can more often perceive the infractions that need punishment and supply appropriate, and swift, punishments. But how can a prison sentence be swift or severe, when it’s only a period of time in a box? Incarceration was never intended to be purely punitive, insofar as there’s quite a bit of confused language about rehabilitation thrown into the mix. Moreover, the vague fear and potent reality of rape and beatings forms a sort of aleatory punishment that sometimes succeeds in doling out just deterrents, but also frequently encourages tribalistic loyalities, hazing behavior, and other gang-activity.

I’ve worked in the criminal justice system, and as far as I can tell, it is an utter failure on any level larger than a small town. In such a small social unit, social pressures and individual attention can weed the stupid sociopaths (the ones that get caught) from the misguided moralists (for whom a healthy psyche may someday emerge). On any larger scale, it becomes impossible to differentiate favoritism and bigotry from attention to specific cases; rule-following and generic prescriptions take the place of rehabilitation.

Once we recognize this failure, the incarceration strategy seems about as good as any other for supplying a punishment acceptable to non-criminals. If we can’t fix people (and we can’t) then we should just separate them from the regular folks. At that point, the leftist concern for avoiding false or bigoted outcomes is the paramount goal. Key to this defeatism and its attendant concerns for justice (even over victim’s rights) is a simple insight: macroscopic social factors are much more important to shaping the individual psyche than the deliberate manipulations of paternalistic psychologists and rehabilitationists. Better, then, to avoid systematic racism and its wholesale effects on an entire demographic than to retail good behavior to every prisoner, most of whom are not equipped to buy.

2 thoughts on “Conservative Criminal “Science””

  1. I think these are excellent points, and since you have some firsthand experience, it seems you're in a better position than I to talk about matters like this.

    (See my response to your comments on Sentiments, and my latest post, if you haven't already.)

    Nevertheless, I still think that many of these matters are empirical questions. Yes, those who cannot be reformed should be isolated from society, but we should ask and investigate the question, is there any way to prevent this outcome?

    From what I know, early interventions are the most effective. In other words, if we were especially harsh with first-time offenders (rather than lenient as we are now), we may do more good for those individuals in the long run by shaping their habits through punitive measures.

    At the same time, this would be a good for communities to which these individuals belong. It's certainly not sufficient to foster genuine communal sympathies among people, but it certainly doesn't hurt.

  2. I'm interested in the sorts of empirical research you're prescribing: are we talking about statistical analyses of felons, or rather psychological experiments on children or college students analogically applied to criminals? I can get behind the first, but the second troubles me.

    I think "first-time offense" is a misnomer. We're really talking about "first-time caught." With that in mind, I believe that the data presses for earlier, younger interventions which wouldn't happen under the auspioes of the criminal justice system at all, but rather in the home and at school. As such, I suppose I'm much more "conservative" than many of my fellows.

    Tha said, I quite like 'scared straight' programs, although I've only ever encountered their 'graduates' after the they failed to be sufficiently frightened to change their ways.

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