Reconsidering The Crime of Punishment

Tower of London

Tower of London

~The danger is that, instead of understanding, we only seek to quell~
Karl Menninger

Should we lock up criminals so they can’t offend again? Should we penalize them so they learn from their mistakes? Should we punish them to make up for what they did to others? Carl Menninger considered these and other questions when he took stock of the criminal justice system, psychiatry and our national response to crime and criminals in 1966.

His book, The Crime of Punishment, was recently republished. Has anything changed since 1966? In some ways, yes. Prisons have been modernized. Alternatives to incarceration have appeared. Specialized courts seek to understand the needs of the chemically addicted, the mentally ill and veterans among others. But do we know any more about crime and criminals than we did in the nineteen sixties?

Despite his exhaustive treatment of the topic, Menninger admitted that he was not capable of saying what motivated criminal acts and doubted whether anyone else could either. When asked, the best criminals can manage is, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

If we don’t know what motivates crime, how can we prevent or minimize it? A good question but one which does not trouble most of us. As a society, we think more about the deeds than those who commit them. We quickly turn our thoughts to the best punishment for each crime.

But what does punishment accomplish? We hope to deter future crime by the threat of punishment. We hope convicts will mend their ways. We hope victims will feel vindicated. Unfortunately none of these seems to happen as a result of the noble efforts of our criminal justice system on our behalf.

If punishment does not work, what does? Maybe we need to return to where crime begins, in the human mind. What happens in the minds of criminals remains largely a mystery, even to themselves. We do have some hints though.

We know that many criminals feel powerless, hopeless and frustrated. They have very little sense of personal value. Crime, particularly the violent type, gives criminals at least a fleeting sense of power and control in their lives. For a few minutes they feel competent. Long term consequences don’t enter the picture since the future is usually bleak for them anyway.

I don’t suggest that we excuse criminals’ actions due to their shortcomings or release them from responsibility for their actions. But crushing their spirit only increases their tendency toward continued violence. Killing them only makes us a more violent society.

We love to hate those who get caught committing crimes. We see it a little differently if we know the person involved, or if by some chance it is us. We make allowances for their life situation or difficulties. Specialized courts for certain populations have lowered recidivism rates considerably among these groups. Perhaps understanding the circumstances of other criminals can reduce our overall crime rate.

Life Lab Lessons

  • What keeps you within legal boundaries?
  • What would push you over the edge?
  • Do you seek vengeance for being wronged?
  • What does it do to your spirit?
  • Try letting go and living in the present.
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