Saturday, February 25, 2006

Crime and Reform, or Crime and Punishment?

By: Michael Akerman

According to the BBC, Mississippi plans on posting the names and pictures of convicted sex offenders on billboards. Obviously, this worries me (or it wouldn't be here).

I want to be clear from the start: sex offenders are dangerous. The recidivism rate for released sex offenders is alarmingly high, and it is a humiliating, dehumanizing, and degrading crime. It is extremely important that we prevent these heinous acts whenever possible.

These billboards cannot do that. In fact, they're contrary to this goal.

If we want sex offenders to stop offending, we have to allow them to reform. If we continue to identify them as sex offenders in a public setting, they have no choice but to be sex offenders. Indeed, it's a very good way to make these men more criminal: who would hire an employee that everyone would recognize as a rapist? Without a steady job, there is only crime or panhandling.

The goal, I'm sure, is to allow women and parents to recognize potential rapists and child-abusers off-hand. This is, frankly, ridiculous: if a woman or child has time to avoid this potential rapist, she has time to check the public sex offender registry. In the one reasonable case where a registry search could not prevent a rape, the woman would necessarily be swiftly and immediately assaulted. Recognition would prevent the crime no more than recognizing a bullet stops it from killing you.

Yet, this represents a deeper issue with the criminal justice system: it is treated as a punishment system. The justice system must be focused on reform. Not only is a focus on punishment barbaric, it is a waste of money. This is why the prison system has become such a revolving-door system: serve the time, learn nothing, get out, commit a crime. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I sympathize with the victims and their families. I understand that they want revenge. Justice, however, cannot lie on the whims of the victim. For this reason, I advocate a "second chance" policy for every crime. A first murder, to use the most extreme example, should not be repaid with execution: it should be treated with 20 years (or more, or less) in the slammer. A second murder should be punishable by execution or life in prison (I'd say “automatic execution,” but I'm not positive that's wise. It may be merely a remnant of what I'm decrying in this post), at the decision of the court, because the murderer has made no effort to change, and is too unlikely to do so to risk the safety of others any longer by letting him free after a number of years.

Obviously, I must consider incidence: if multiple people are killed in one act (for instance, a stray bullet or a in moment of rage), the sentence should be augmented appropriately (one could theoretically have “life in prison” as a de facto sentence, but it would really be a highly augmented number of years, rather than simply “until you die”), but not to the level of execution, because the crime may have been committed in a moment of weakness or caused my a therapy-treatable mental calamity. If, however, as in the case of serial killers, multiple acts occur with time to reconsider and stop between them, it is inexcusable, because it cannot represent a mere moment of weakness but a calculating, relentless and evil killer. Execution, I think, is a strong option (upon the decision of the court, of course, not as a mandatory minimum sentence).

It's time to stop punishing people for the sake of revenge. We can't justify prison times as "making an example out of someone." The only answer to crime is therapy, retraining, and time spent isolated from society to protect society and allow reform. The system cannot work with only one out of three.

~By my hand,
~Michael Akerman