Thursday, December 22, 2005

Crime and punishment

In general, I like to say there are two ways of thinking about crime and punishment: make the punishment fit the crime vs. make the punishment fit the criminal. This has parallels in parenting and classroom discipline as well.

In principal, one might say anyone convicted of murder shall be put to death. (Of course generally we do not rape the rapist or remove the hands of thieves at this point in our society).

Current criminal sentencing policy attempts to follow this principal by requiring certain mandatory minimum sentences for offenses and repeat offenses (called the Three Strikes law in California). There was a perception in the 80's that too many criminals were getting parole, and a few very horrific, high profile cases of violent crimes by parolees. So now we have a massive criminal industrial complex in California where they budget prison construction based on how many kids are born in a particular year and prison construction far outpaces the construction of new college campuses.

Making punishment fit the criminal leads to its own problems, and hightlights some issues with capital punishment as it is currently implemented in California. In principal it is a great idea to look at the offendor and their circumstances and find the most fitting punishment, but in practice this can be problematic.

An example from a school I taught at is illustrative. Once their were two students who on separate days independent of each other left the middle school campus to use a soda machine on the adjacent high school campus. One, a middle class female white student, was given a warning. The other, a Native American male student, was suspended for leaving school. So too much discretion may be a bad thing too.

For me, the main way to make sense of this is to look at what I would call a theology of crime (or perhaps sin if you don't mind the term). I learned in high school as friends of mine started doing time for petty and not so petty crimes, that the line between who were and weren't criminals was pretty fuzzy. Criminals really are you cousins and uncles and kids you grew up with. There really is no line between us and them.

Growing up in Southern California in the Reagan era, it was heresy to say so, but there is no group of them that we can just round up and kill off to solve all the world's problems. I believe this is true of crime and true of terrorism.

Sometimes I find the construct of original sin more useful than any liberal alternative in this regard. It is useful to understand that we are all capable of doing wrong and of hurting one another in large ways and small. Sometimes I feel like some UUs replace this older notion of original sin (that we are all sinners of different degrees) with the idea that those of us with the right diet, the right hybrid car, or the right jaded hipster sense of irony are somehow exempt from the capacity for evil. Within my UU community, I know one who did jail time for DUI, one whose son just got out of jail for DUI and another whose father is in prison.

The LA Police Department is sometimes referred to as the thin blue line between us and them. The Border Patrol tried to adopt the thing green line as a motto too. But all of this is misguided to me. We are them and they are us.

Indeed, the line between good and evil does not run between groups of people but through every human heart.


At 10:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


This is a very good analysis. I think once we can truly accept that we are all criminals and that delusional line we draw is just that we can work towards a better world. For those of us that cannot, it is a terrifying fact to face about oneself. Truly humbling.



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