By Andrew Field – Follow on Twitter
During the last few weeks we have seen some outrage expressed for and against punishment of offenders following the recent riots in the United Kingdom. Hackles and emotions have been raised and evidently there is quite a lobby against cruel, brutal, inhuman and degrading treatment of offenders
, understandably so. Punishment, per se, by its nature, can be and is perceived as cruel, particularly if you are on the receiving end of it. It is described as something which is painful, a penalty. Enlightened society has moved on from the archaic forms of punishment involving death and whipping of offenders, yet some countries persist with these. Some religions believe violent retribution is God given, echoes of ‘an eye for an eye’.

What is the purpose of punishment and are there alternatives? For punishment to be effective it needs to be unpleasant or dreadful and be imposed by a lawful authority. The theory is that punishment of offenders, if sufficiently harsh, will prevent further offending, although prisons are full of second offenders; it tells the victim that the offender’s actions were not acceptable; it discourages others, debatable; it protects others from dishonest or dangerous people; allows restitution; and gives the general populous a reasonable understanding of what is and is not socially acceptable.

The first issue which needs to be addressed in a discussion of this nature is: to punish or not to punish offenders. Some who argue against current forms of punishment, which includes imprisonment, tend to suggest they are all cruel and degrading and alternatives need to be found. Imprisonment does nothing to advance the offender, is a heavy burden on the tax-payer and turns criminals into helpless social outcasts. Some suggest it does not reduce crime. Given the removal of violent punishment, with which most agree, the sole and most widely used form of punishment remains imprisonment. To do away with our prisons would be tantamount to removal of punishment from our society.

As an aside, crime figures in the United States suggest the murder, rape and robbery rates have fallen to a 48 year low (Mail & Guardian – September 2011). Analysis of crime per capita rates in many states show a dramatic decline. Sociologists have come up with scores of reasons for this trend, but the more widely accepted conclusions are those which identify with the imposition of harsher prison sentences since the late 1970’s. Conversely, and to be expected, the United States has suffered a correlating increase in prison populations, interning 2,3 million of its population in the fight against crime. This has kept a large population of criminals off the streets and, apparently, has reduced crime.

Primarily our justice systems are concerned with incapacitating criminals; deterring others who may be tempted to commit similar crime; occasionally offering restitution to victims thus restoring the status quo ante; in certain societies, allowing retribution; and occasionally rehabilitation. There are strong arguments for and against these five elements of justice delivery. Not all are punishments in the true sense. Only two of these offer anything for the victim, one, retribution, has violent connotations. Some will argue punishment of the offender gives the victim some closure.

The principle alternatives to capital, corporal and incarcerative punishment follow two broad forms: restorative justice, which attempts to create some accountability and healing between victim and offender, a case of ‘I am sorry, here is your money back’; and transformative justice, which is a little longer term and concerns itself with going back to causative issues, or conditions that nurtured unlawful activity, and that were catalytic in igniting crime in a community.

Restorative justice may heal a few wounds, but this is hardly punishment for the hardened or habitual criminal. It is tantamount to a good telling off and a ‘say you are sorry’. Transformative justice is desperately needed in most communities, but not as an alternative to punishmental justice. Some argue that doing away with prisons and converting the budgets to transformative justice programmes, which may include diversion of funds towards education, health and/or improved social upkeep programmes. The problem with transformative justice is that it is a ‘closing the stable door after the horse has bolted’. It really provides for future generations with social issues which will be unique to their times.

A short while ago I made a comment about the old ways of handling criminals, deportation to the colonies, a favourite of the French and the English, and the glorious results achieved in Australia! Of course we no longer have colonies, and I guess my suggestions about the moon raised a few eyebrows and provided for a few rants. I have also raised the issue of conscription, something which most will find awfully distasteful, but only if applied to the general, law abiding public.

Conscription also has connotations of military involvement, but that need not be. Conscription actually provides several crime fighting solutions. Inherent in this if made a punishment would be: it could enable removal of criminals from their communities (incapacitation); it could provide vocational training (rehabilitation); it would provide a means for restitution; might be seen as a form of retribution, if holiday camp fever can be avoided; and may even offer opportunities for restorative justice. Conscription as a punishment could isolate offenders to our public service organizations (like hospitals) with smart tagging or electronic monitoring, or on the front lines of the latest conflict zone, in either an humanitarian or military support roll. Such exposure would be an invaluable character builder.

In the mean time, society is stuck with its prisons, and one should not expect much change there soon because, clearly, prison is a solution which appears to work, albeit a heavy burden on state coffers and a questionable issue of inhumanity. The American experience suggests stiffer and harsher penalties for the prison system to work, something many will find abhorrent. Clearly, some need to take heed of the American system if it is really working and stop caring about how offenders feel about their punishment.

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