Thursday, June 10, 2010

No breaks for bad upbringing

Just as a warning, I'm going to talk about Nazis in this post. I avoid bringing them up because they often paint blog entries as hyperbolic, but that's a risk I'm willing to take today.

I don't agree with giving criminals softer punishments because they were brought up in a bad environment or had few legitimate opportunities for work.

The idea is pretty common. John Doe was brought up poor in a violent city, mired with drugs, gangs and bad schools. He fell into the criminal life, not because he was born bad, but because his environment influenced him to be.

Indeed, I agree that people from those areas are more likely to turn to crime than those from better neighborhoods. If one were to pluck a young John Doe from the ghetto and raise him in suburbia, he would be much more likely to obey the law.

So when John Doe gets caught and goes before a judge, there's a cry for leniency. It's not entirely his fault, after all, so why should he be punished the same as someone who had a good upbringing? Is that justice?

Well lets stop and think what the purpose of prison is. Most people think of it simply as punishment for wrongdoing. That's correct, but incomplete. Incarceration servers three purposes: Punishment, prevention and protection.

With punishment, any victims and their families will feel that the law had made the criminal pay a penalty. It is the vengeance aspect of justice.

As for prevention, the threat of legal consequences acts as a discouragement to future crimes.

Finally with protection, locking someone away from general society keeps the public safe from dangerous criminals.

So while I agree with the sympathetic opposition that a criminal with a poor background is less deserving of the punishment aspect, the prevention and protection matters should not be ignored or undermined.

With the rule of law, the sentence a court carries out should be predictable. If you know that getting caught throwing a brick through a window will always result in 30 days in jail, you will not throw a brick unless you think its worth risking 30 days in jail. When people know they can plead a bad upbringing, it changes the equation they make in their own head, encouraging crime.

Without strict sentencing guidelines, the public has a heightened risk of being savaged by violent criminals. No one will find it comforting that their aunt was strangled by a drug addict because John Doe was the product of his environment and thus received a light sentence, placing him back on the streets that fateful night.

Of course, that sympathy for venomous influences does not extend to Germany in the 1930's and 40's. There is nothing evil in the blood of German people that lead them to engineer the Holocaust and march across Europe. They were under the influence of Adolph Hitler, an Austrian radical and one of the most persuasive public speakers of the century. No goose-stepper thought up Antisemitism; it was fed to them. So was the glory of national socialism. They were caught up in movement larger then themselves, and it heavily influenced their actions.

So should we have shown sympathy during the Nuremberg Trials? Of course not - and that is where my opposition must backpedal. Punishment, prevention and protection were intertwined into the executioner's noose. Even with lesser crimes, the rule of law and predictably of consequences are needed to keep society safe. Punishment is just part of the equation.


  1. This is why I believe the criminal justice system as it stands is in need of reform. Often times people who come from crappy backgrounds end up getting worse sentencing than those who come from the nice part of town, simply because of lack of resources to decent lawyers or they are part of a minority group and are unable to escape the stigma of their skin color.

  2. A stigma like white? White has as big or a bigger a stigma than black these day.