From early childhood on we are used to the idea of punishment. It seems self-evident that criminals have to be punished. This idea is somehow deeply ingrained in the fabric of most cultures and it is hard-wired into most religions.
But is the necessity of punishment really inevitable? I don’t think so. I don’t expect many of you to follow me in this respect (although I have recently seen a blog entry going into the same direction, see http://jondayblog.wordpress.com/?s=punishment), but I find the idea of punishment both irrational and cruel.
I see cruelty in the act of causing somebody to suffer. If that person caused suffering of others, I see no justification for causing suffering to that person in turn. Instead, it is just as wrong as the action of the criminal. Normally, people think punishment is necessary for determent, but I see no convincing evidence that this is necessary or effective. And I can think of no rational justification of revenge. Try to come up with a rational reason for it. The longer I have tried, the less I could find. Revenge is a destructive and aggressive and in the end a cruel emotion on the side of the victim of a crime. Allowing it does not make things better and brutalizes society. Channeling it in the form of organized legal punishment does not improve the situation of our society either. I think somebody who feels a desire for revenge is somebody in need of therapy. You might not share my opinion on this, but I cannot think of any rational justification for revenge. It seems totally irrational to me.
The question of punishment is sometimes tied to the question of free will. It is true that if free will does not exist, punishment is a disputable thing. Personally, I do not believe in free will, but I think the question of punishment is independent of the question of free will. Even if we have free will, I see no justification for punishment. These two questions should be looked at independently. Inflicting suffering in somebody, no matter what he or she has done, appears unacceptable and cruel to me. If somebody has free will and is responsible for what he or she is doing, that does not mean one has the right to treat him or her in a cruel way even if that person is a cruel person him/herself. Such a person belongs into treatment, not into prison.
I think instead of punishing people, society should instead do four things:
- We must offer help to the victims of crime. Our society offers nearly nothing except for organized revenge in the form of punishment. This is paltry. It does not help anybody and it promotes a general attitude of cruelty. What is missing is counseling and therapy for the victims instead.
- We must offer therapy and rehabilitation to the criminals. Our usual forms of punishment in many cases don’t better them but make them and their problems worse.
- We must protect society from dangerous people. This might entail – though not necessarily and not in all cases – confining people in closed institutions (combined with therapy), but not in order to punish them. In extreme cases, such confinement must be life-long. But since its purpose would not be punishment, it must not be shaped according to the model of a prison but according to the model of a closed psychiatric ward.
- We must do research on the real causes of crime and how to avoid it and implement evidence based policies based on such research. We do not need emotional arguments and redneck prejudices.
My opinion is, we should do away with the institution of punishment as we have done away with the equally cruel institution of slavery that many people once also found normal and indispensable.