The true effects of punitive justice
By: Susan Haas
| Posted: Saturday, Oct 05, 2013 06:00 am
It is not uncommon to hear calls for Canada to return to a more punitive justice system. Even amongst many fairly liberal Canadians, there persists the idea that Canadian prisons are more like free-rent accommodations (with television, no less) than they are in any way punitive. Indeed, this popular idea of the failings of our justice system was a key platform issue of the Conservatives who promised harsher punishments and less extra-custody based sentencing alternatives. But what the Conservatives catered to is an idea of justice that has been proven flawed by a substantial body of forensic research, as well as by history itself. The sad fact is that many Canadians are arguing for a justice system that would perpetuate crime rather than curb it.
Those who are ignorant of the realities of the prison system often complain that prisoners are simply getting some sort of free vacation where they get to sit around and watch television all day. People need to grasp that Canadian prisoners being allowed to watch television for a portion of their day does not mitigate the fact that freedom, a paramount value of Canadian society, is denied to prisoners on all levels, from what time they sleep to what they get to eat.
But should conditions be even harsher? Well, numerous studies have shown that harsher prison conditions in fact not only fail to curb recidivism, but actually are linked to higher recidivism rates. This is partially due to the dehumanizing aspect of harsh prison conditions. Consider, for example, the drastically overused practice of solitary confinement: if you are trying to teach someone to develop social behaviours that will enable them to reintegrate into society, there is an obvious flaw in the logic of locking them in what is essentially a human-sized cage, and allowing them no human contact except for the delivery of meals three times a day. This practice not only has a negative effect on the mental state of criminals, it also has a deleterious effect on the mentally fit. Generally speaking, people do not come out of solitary confinement a better person than they went in.
Further to the official procedures of Canadian prisons are the unofficial ones. Allegations of abuse of prisoners are widespread and include everything from threats to murder. While some allegations might be lies, others have proven true, and these suggest that a system exists where prisoners are semi-regularly treated abusively, which is tragic on a number of levels. Beyond the hypocrisy of treating prisoners violently when we imprison people for that kind of behaviour, abuse by corrections officers perpetuates an adversarial mentality against those in authority. This is clearly not the message that we should be sending to people we want to rehabilitate.
Of course, the concept of rehabilitation is not even unanimously agreed upon, particularly for certain kinds of offences. The two offences most often mentioned in this context are murder and child molestation. Many people find these crimes so heinous that they either cannot imagine that their perpetrators could ever be successfully reintegrated into society, or they do not believe they ever deserve to be. What people should be educated on is the perpetrators of these crimes typically come from backgrounds where they were exposed to abuse and other factors that led them to commit their offence. If we understand these factors and support programming that encourages change on both internal and behavioural levels, there is always the possibility of successful rehabilitation and reintegration.
As to the idea that there should be no forgiveness for certain crimes and their punishment should be eternal, again, some understanding of these individuals’ backgrounds is warranted. People typically do not go out and murder others or molest children simply because of some inherent evil they were born with. In the case of child molesters, most were themselves sexually abused when they were younger, often by someone close and in a position of trust. In the case of murderers, many were physically and emotionally abused, grew into alcohol or drug dependency, and/or came from social environments where walking away from fights was neither expected nor encouraged. Much like severely neglected children who do not acquire language or other social skills, these people, criminals though they may be, deserve some understanding for the experiences that shaped them. People who recite “an eye for an eye” would do well to put down the Old Testament and pick up a forensic psychology textbook.
The most extreme statement that can be made by the “eye for an eye” camp is one of support for the reinstatement of capital punishment, which is wrong on both moral and pragmatic levels. One has to acknowledge that people are occasionally wrongfully convicted, and we cannot ethically have a system wherein we execute some people for their crime of murder, but excuse ourselves for the crime of executing someone who turns out later to be innocent.
On a pragmatic note, capital punishment does not deter crime. Criminals are typically people who have troubles with impulse control, not people who stop and weigh the potential consequences of their actions. In fact, murder rates are generally lower in places with no capital punishment. This may be in part because tips that lead to the capture of suspected murderers often come from friends and family of the suspect who want to do the right thing, but would feel more hesitant to do so if they knew that their tip to the police might lead to execution. If you cannot reject capital punishment for moral reasons, you should surely do so for pragmatic ones.
I can appreciate that it’s difficult at times to keep perspective and not react viscerally to certain crimes, but we should allow reason to guide our justice system. The next time you’re tempted to react and chime in about how we should have harsher punishments for criminals, ask yourself if you should do a little more research before you speak.
Susan Haas is a long-time resident of St. Albert, currently studying law at the University of Manitoba.