Rehabilitation

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Rehabilitation. Let’s start from that word and see where it takes us. The definition that most appeals to me is the restoration of someone to a useful place in society”. I was surprised that most definitions appear to emphasise the restoration of appearance or status, which is not quite the same thing.

To physically restore something, it must have gone wrong or been damaged. Rehabilitation of a person similarly means that they have gone wrong or been damaged. By “gone wrong”, we probably mean that they have committed a crime and they may have been damaged by their environment.

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There is an argument that a tendency to commit crimes may be have some genetic component and thus you have families where several generations have committed crimes. However, while there probably is a genetic component it is difficulty to distinguish between genetic reasons and a environmental reasons for a person committing a crime. In most cases of course, both causes may be in effect. It’s the ancient nature versus nurture debate, of course.

It’s possible that a solution to the genetic predisposition to commit crime might be found and a future criminal may be offered a choice – take this pill or go to jail. At the very least, it may be possible to spot potential criminals when they are very young, and use environmental means to combat their innate tendency to crime.

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Any genetic tendency to crime may arise from something missing in a person. One obvious lack would be lack of empathy. If a person is empathetic, they can put themselves in the other person’s shoes so to speak and can imagine what it feels like to be robbed or raped or even murdered. I’ve simplified a bit there, but it will do.

On the other hand, if you live in an environment where violence is common, and lying and cheating is commonplace, then you are likely to come to think that such behaviour is normal. You literally wouldn’t be able to conceive of an environment where violence never happens or is very rare.

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Society promotes the view that crime should be punished and that retribution in the form of punishment is to be expected if a crime has been committed. Punishment often takes the form of locking the criminal up with other criminals away from their home environment.

Without anything else happening, this seems like a singularly ineffective strategy. It does remove the criminal from society, but forces the criminal to associate with others who have similar antisocial defects. They learn off each other, not to be better people, but to better at whatever criminal activity that they have indulged in.

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When the criminal is released, he or she is sent back to the very environment that may have been a large factor in causing him or her to become a criminal in the first place. The result is that he or she may go back to behaving as he or she did before, and indeed may introduce new antisocial behaviours that he or she has learnt in prison.

Another aspect of punishment of any sort is that it is supposed to deter others from similar actions. This assumes that the others in question have the empathy to understand the effect that punishment has on someone and the effect that this punishment would have on them.

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How would we rehabilitate someone, if we had to resources to do so? Most such attempts appear to involve teaching the criminal a trade, so that when they get out of prison, they can take up a useful trade and not have the desire to commit any more crimes.

There’s a couple of problems with this, and one is what I’ve already mentioned above – they are going back into the same environment that had probably been a factor in their committing the crime that got them sent to prison in the first place. And they have more skills which could be used in criminal pursuits.

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Of course being taught a trade in prison works for some people, or so I believe. These people would be those on the borderline environments where there is some criminal activity, but not much, and prison is seen as a deterrent and not as an occupational hazard. Nevertheless, they still face huge barriers, not the least of which is getting a job when they have a criminal record.

So it’s not surprising that rehabilitation, as it happens today, doesn’t seem to be effective, and that is because it doesn’t address the causes, genetic and environmental that cause people to commit crimes.

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I suspect that any genetic tendency to commit crimes would be next to impossible to remedy. If the genes which cause a tendency to antisocial behaviour were to be identified, then the next question is what to do about it. Until and if it is possible to medically change the expression of these genes in utero or after birth, it would become an ethical dilemma. Just how far should society go in ensuring that crime is not committed. Should society prevent the full expression of a human being’s abilities and tendencies, even if they are criminal.

Society could somehow prevent people who carry such genes from reproducing, or at least stop then from producing offspring with those genes, but again that merely makes the issue an ethical one. Such meddling is usually labelled “eugenics” and generally frowned upon.

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Various science fiction novels present arguments both for and against it. The major argument against eugenics as a way of reducing crimes is that the preconceptions and biases of individuals and societies make their choices suspect.

The environmental issues may be easier address. It is often thought that crime and poverty are linked, and that removing poverty may reduce crime. This is plausible, but while someone who is poor might be pushed over the line and commit a crime, there is no doubt that there is a great deal of crime committed by people who are not usually considered to be facing poverty.

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So called white collar crime can be committed on all scales from defrauding individuals to crimes committed by people in huge corporations. While poverty related crime affects a few people, white collar crimes can be perpetrated on millions of people, and by people who have never had direct contact with their victims.

So, it seems to me that society is not really addressing rehabilitation. We concentrate on punishment, which is a deterrent, but once a person commits a crime, no real attempt to rehabilitate them happens. For it do so, society may have to change dramatically, and I don’t see that happening any time soon.

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