Dom and I drop some more “science” on crime

Sentiments of Rationality is at it again. Dom seems to have convinced himself that conservatives are actually right about criminal justice, since they care about victims and safety more than liberals, and trust their authority figures. He goes on to suggest electric shocks in order to speed punishment and reduce incarceration time. Here’s the gist:

If we want to deter crime, then, we can do so effectively by viewing it as an educational problem that requires cultivation of the proper habits, ones which are pro-social and lead to fuller self-development of individual, i.e., more freedom in a positive sense.

I’m glad Dom continues to push this line of argument vis-à-vis  conservatism and criminal justice, because it’s clearly fruitful. I’ve gotten two posts out of it, myself! However, anyone who’s really fascinated by modern crime and punishment should read Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. Though I often suspect Foucault of just the critically-edged nostalgia that troubles some of Dom’s interlocutors, it’s still the first book to differentiate the modern situation from the same old conversations that philosophers have been having since Socrates demanded a full pardon and a daily coolness stipend. Then, if you want to keep at it, take a look around the internet at prison statistics and the sorts of things that generally trouble “corrections officers” and prison reformers. I recommend the Prison Policy Intiative, this neat blog, or what the man himself says on the subject.

With nearly 80,000 inmates in the NY State system, (which is the only system I’ve encountered professionally) much of the concern surrounds costs and efficiency, as well as the injustices that efficiencies create. As with any discourse, getting your head around general moral principles won’t help you much when you’re faced with a rusty, decrepit system with out-of-control costs. It’s more fun to talk about in the abstract, though….

So: in Arendtian fashion, I take issue with the paternalization of the state. Unlike schools, prisons generally deal with fully-formed adults. Much of what Dom says might apply to juvenile detention, except that we generally assume that more leniency is required for minors. (Maybe that’s the root of the problem: if we could only draw and quarter a few teenage rapists, perhaps the rest would fall into line… but I’m just kidding, really.) Dom actually uses an elementary school example to make his point:

Some children have a nervous tendency to repeatedly tap their pen or pencil on their desk, making it difficult for others to concentrate. The most effective approach to dealing with this behavior would probably be a (literal) slap on the wrist, but even if we avoid corporal punishment entirely, it still seems the most reasonable response would be to punish the children in some other way (maybe even just telling them to stop, which puts a social pressure on them).

However, what some teachers have begun doing is giving the students drinking straws to tap instead. The problem is taken as some inflexible given, a natural disorder which requires educators to accommodate students rather than vice-versa. But this is bad for everyone involved. The child is reinforced in a bad behavior that, outside of the protective school environment, could lead to other bad consequences. Meanwhile, we have to take extra time and effort to see to the children’s “special needs”.

This pencil-tapping analogy threw me for a loop. I guess it’s meant to be an exemplar of our impotent, libertine educators, but I think that it’s a fatally bad example in this conversation. To go from that to “regularly administering electric shocks to prisoners over the duration of their sentence” seems like a major jump. (They are used, and inevitably cruelly and for the inappropriate enjoyment of the corrections officers) It suggests to me that he might be letting the examples do some of his reasoning for him.

Yes, I agree we should spank our children. But should we spank our adults? It seems to be poorly argued to say that the one follows from the other. We spank children in order to make them into responsible subjects; having become responsible subjects (who refuse to respond to authority), adults require different treatment. Just think about your own habits, and how much more difficult they are to change than they once were. Many claim that criminals put themselves in this diminutive position vis-à-vis the state by committing crimes. Yet they cannot argue this, through syllogistic and valid reasoning, so instead they talk around the problem, through the analogies Dom describes. They attempt to enforce a paradigm of criminal juvenality by constantly asserting the primacy of examples drawn from parenting and education. Meanwhile, the state gains tremendous powers to discipline and control the lives of its citizens, and becomes increasingly paternalistic.

I meant what I said in my last post: the truly criminal are lost to us. Lock them up, torture them, kill them, it doesn’t matter, because they won’t ever become good. But let’s not for a second pretend that the state is so trustworthy that it won’t find a way to extend its oversight of criminals to increasingly banal parts of our everyday lives. Drug use, sexual deviance, political dissent, whatever strikes the political fancy: the capacity of the legislature to criminalize activites is unlimited. We’d best be sure that the pseudo-criminals that bad governments produce aren’t tortured along with the bad people we’d like to see punished.

2 thoughts on “Dom and I drop some more “science” on crime”

  1. I agree with you on many of the points you raise here.

    I am not taking a conservative stance on criminal justice with respect to what is criminalized. I wholeheartedly agree with you that there must be limits to paternalism, that the war on drugs is as much a farce as the war on terror.

    I disagree with Ben on this point, but I think marijuana ought to be completely decriminalized and taxed by the state (it'd still probably end up costing a whole lot less). I'm not so sure about other drugs.

    With respect to education, I think that you're right that interventions are most effective if they happen early on, perhaps as early as the first several years of life. I'd prefer to see more resources channeled into efforts to reduce teenage pregnancy (comprehensive sex ed, wider availability of condoms, easier access to abortions for those living in poverty, etc.), to teach parenting skills to individuals who need them (like teenage mothers), to ensure better nutrition for young children in impoverished areas, to give intercity youth other things to do than join gangs (midnight basketball used to be one such program), and so forth.

    Perhaps you're right that we need to simply remove those who cannot be reformed from society. I wonder, though, how large this category really is. I was talking to a friend of mine who lives in NYC and who works for a rehabilitation center. She told me something remarkable.

    Left to their own devices, people addicted to opiates (like heroin) take a full nine years to return their brain receptors to normal (and effectively overcome their addiction). With treatment programs and the right drugs, this has been shortened to nine months. However, a new drug has been developed which does it in three days. That's right, only 3 days.

    Now, the people who are administered into this program are required to do a few other things to receive the treatment. They must regularly speak with a counselor, attend AA meetings, and essentially take steps to establish new habits that avoid drug use and criminal behavior.

    I don't know the precise difference, but this kind of program does have a greater success rate than others. It makes me think that we should continue efforts to find effective ways to eliminate or prevent bad habits, and punishment is just one option. Perhaps it will not reform career criminals, but it may serve as a deterrant to those who might still be helped.

  2. You've hit on the most important role prisons play in rehabilitating deliquents of various sorts: preventing them access to their drugs of choice, and sometimes providing treatment. My only counter would be this: it is purportedly easier to score drugs in a prison than outside. The tremendous failure of the system to prevent the trafficking of drugs AMONG A POPULATION OF DETAINED FELONS strikes me as absurd, but my contacts with both convicts and ex-convicts have convinced me that it is true.

    That said, some lucky few, whose sentences are not otherwise violent, are able to receive concentrated treatment and counseling, and for that I am hopeful. Rehabilitating addicts may reduce that core of hardened criminality, but I am unsure whether it whittles it away to nothing. Certainly it is the case that far too many people are being incarcerated in this country, and often the wrong sorts of folks. But that's a conversation for another time.

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