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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Why did he do it?

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Why do people become murderers or rapists, or even petty thieves. I mean, sure, sometimes a person could irritate you to the point where a fleeting thought of carnage crosses your mind. But most people would immediately shut down that thought and even be shocked and revolted by it. They certainly wouldn’t act on it.

Surely no one wakes up one morning and thinks “Oh, I’ll become a career criminal,” or “Oh, I’ll violently attack someone today.” It’s easier to explain when the person is immersed in a culture where crime is normal and maybe even expected of one. But there are law abiding people even within the worst of environments, where crime is common.

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Fear of consequences is often used to try to deter people from crime, but in many cases the fear of consequences is not enough to prevent a person committing a crime. Prison may be seen as normal and expected. So called petty criminals may expect to be thrown in to jail many times in their lives and to them it cannot be much of a deterrent.

Of course, one’s better judgement can be nullified by drugs or by alcohol. Many assaults happen when the person who assaults another person is drunk or high on drugs. Other crimes like rape, burglary, and vandalism are also more likely to happen when a person is intoxicated.

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One way that is often suggested to reduce crime is to increase the severity of the punishment, so that fear of consequences is increased. However, this has limited effect only. People still committed murder even when capital punishment was still used. When in a blind rage, if a person is mentally ill, or if the person believes that they can get away with a crime without being caught, then the consequences often do not come under consideration.

In a court of law it is assumed that the person knew that consequences and still continued with their action. In many cases I believe that this is simplistic to say the least. A person sees another person leave a phone or wallet somewhere that the first person can take it from. Often the first person doesn’t think through the consequences of the theft. They don’t even consciously think that they can get away with it. They just react to the item being accessible.

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Also each successful theft reinforces the thief’s feeling that he or she will not be caught, so they do it again. In fact, of course there is a chance that they will be caught each time that they commit the theft, and the more times that they commit the crime, the more likely it is that they will eventually get caught.

If they are likely to get away with the crime nine times out of ten, then if they commit the crime seven times, the chance of them getting caught is better than even. Maybe one way to reduce crime is to teach criminals statistics!

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It seems that the propensity to commit crime is inherent in human beings. It is not related to social standing, as crimes of theft and of fraud are seen to be committed by people of all social standings. The criminals, even those higher up the socioeconomic ladder tend to make the mistake of repeating their crimes, which, as I mentioned above, renders them more likely to be caught.

Of course those lower down the socioeconomic ladder commit simpler crimes like theft and violence often fuelled by alcohol and drugs, and those higher up commit the so-called white collar crimes. A person’s position on the ladder doesn’t seem to bear much relation to whether or not they commit sexually related crimes, and in fact, a person’s higher standing often seems to protect them against being caught – they are able to convince people to look the other way when such a crime is committed, by using their influence or by using their money to buy people off.

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If the propensity for crime is to be found at all levels of society, and the punishment of criminals is relatively ineffective as deterring criminals from committing crime, what is there that we can do about it? In my opinion, not a lot. But nevertheless we need to try, if only to reduce it to the minimum possible.

That is what society, from the beginning up to the present day is trying to do, of course. The consequences of being caught committing a crime don’t stop everyone, but it is likely that they do stop some people. Over harsh penalties from crimes don’t work beyond a certain point, and this has been recognised in societies that have dumped capital punishment.

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We try to keep down crime by locking up those who are caught committing it. Again this has only limited effectiveness as well as, effectively, targeting those at the low end of the socioeconomic ladder. A rich person who is fined for jumping a red light is likely to notice it much less than a poor person. The fines represent a much bigger portion of a poor man’s income than that of a rich man.

The only way to reduce crime to zero is to change the human race. If the genes for criminality and violence were to be bred out of the human race, then we would have no problem with crime. Women would not be raped and funds would not be embezzled. People would not drink drive, and would not bash other people.

However, the genes for criminality might be perilously close to the genes for creativity. Creative individuals are often those who break the rules, who go beyond what is allowed. Creative individuals also tend to be those who are close to the boundary between sanity and insanity. They are the eccentrics among us, the ones who do not fit in.

Maybe we could prevent crime by changing the human race, but we risk creating a society which also has no artists, no eccentrics, and essentially no Leonardo DaVincis, no Isaac Newtons, no Shakespeares, no Albert Einsteins. Society would be the poorer for that.

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Crime and Punishment

The staircase at the National Museum of Crime ...
The staircase at the National Museum of Crime & Punishment (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m convinced that most people go through life making few real choices. Oh, we all can all look back and say “Oh, decided to do so-and-so”, but I’m convinced that we didn’t make a choice in the sense of sitting down, making list, considering alternatives, options and consequences. I guess that the nearest that we would come to doing that would be when we are budgeting, or deciding where to go on holiday.

No, our “choices” are driven by needs (“We need to go to the mall to buy….”) or desires (“Let’s eat at the Peppermill today. I had a great omelette there last week!”). Someone comes up with a need or desire and we go along with it or we don’t.


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My point is that there is a thing, which I believe doesn’t exist, called “Free Will” which allows a free choice between alternatives. There is a philosophical war going on between the believers in “Free Will” and those believing in “Predestination” for millennia.

It seems to me that the closer you look at the Free Will/Free Choice thing, the more you discover the reasons that people make the choices that they do. The more reasons, obviously the less “free” the choice will be, and the more you dig the more reasons you find and the less free the choice becomes. I contend that eventually, the room for freedom of choice shrinks to nothing.


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An interesting test would be to put people into a box with a screen and two buttons, and not give them any instructions except “Go into the box and sit down”. Maybe play them some elevator music to set the tone. When you pull them out after 10 minutes or so, they will have pushed zero, one or two buttons. If you then say, in a neutral tone, “You pushed zero, one, two buttons”, they will immediately begin to tell you their justifications for their action or actions.

Justification are not reasons. People often something like “Well, you left me in there with no instructions. Buttons are for pushing, So I thought that I would push one and see what happens” or “Nobody told me to push the buttons, so I didn’t”.

Traffic light aid for the blind, Herzliya, Israel
Traffic light aid for the blind, Herzliya, Israel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These statements say little about the reasons for the person’s actions or inactions. The reasons that they press or don’t press the buttons relate more to a person’s character and state of mind at the time than the justifications given. For instance, the person may be a rule follower, and without rules, would do nothing. Another person may be a rule breaker and, without rules, feels free to do whatever they wish. We all are a mix of both types of course.

People don’t think “I’m a rule-breaker, I’ll push a button”, so they can’t really claim this as a reason for their choice, and they can’t be said to have made a free choice if constrained by this innate or learned facet of their behaviour.


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Some people believe that, in spite of the postulated fact that there is only one possible outcome when a choice is made, that a choice has in fact been made, since if the circumstances had been different a different choice would have been made.

This seems to me to be dodging the question. (It’s not “begging the question” in the strict usage of the phrase). I look at it like this: if we were to roll back time to before the moment that a choice was supposedly made, such as the point when the door of the box closed, and we let time roll forward again, could anything different happen. It is my contention that since all other factors remain the same, that the same thing would definitely happen.

תרשים כללי של פנופטיקון, מבנה הטרוטופי (פוקו)
תרשים כללי של פנופטיקון, מבנה הטרוטופי (פוקו) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Which brings me to the point of this post, which is, how do we justify meting out punishment for a crime, when the criminal was unable to choose not to commit it. Take away the concept of free will and punishment of the criminal seems cruel, unnecessary and unethical at the first glance. Wikipedia gives four justifications for punishment.

Justifications for punishment include retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation, and incapacitation.

Of those justifications the first, retribution, is problematic in a predestined world. The criminal could not have not committed the crime, so revenge or retribution loses most of its point.

Image of "Dawn: Luther at Erfurt" wh...
Image of “Dawn: Luther at Erfurt” which depicts Martin Luther discovering the doctrine of Justification by Faith. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, retribution is rolled up into deterrence. If other criminals see what happens to the criminal in question, they will possibly be less likely to commit similar crimes. In other words the reluctance to suffer the consequences becomes part of their character which results in them not doing similar. When the chance to commit a similar crime arises then this factor becomes part of the character and they do not do it.

Similarly the criminal in question will be deterred (one hopes) from committing the crime again. He will hopefully be rehabilitated and the punishment for his current crime will influence him when the possibility of committing a similar crimes turns up. The punishment is in his memory and is a part of his personality and could be a reason for not committing the crime in the future. He may claim, in the future, that he “chose” not to repeat his crime, but in fact he could not chose to do it because of his personality and his memory of his punishment.

"A Dream of Crime & Punishment", eng...
“A Dream of Crime & Punishment”, engraving by J.J. Grandville. As reproduced in “Harper’s Magazine” shortly after Grandville’s death in 1847. “It is the dream of an assasin overcome by remose” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If the punishment results in a prison sentence then of course he cannot commit the crime or similar crimes. Wikipedia uses the term “incapacitated” and indeed that is so if he is imprisoned. An execution is a pretty final way of “incapacitating” a criminal and for many justice systems it it the ultimate punishment for severe crimes.

In the past in many countries, the criminal was tortured before execution, a process which horrifies us these days, but which seemed justified at the time. It at least some of these cases the intent was “drive out” evil influences.

Evil Twin
Evil Twin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The past crimes of others and their subsequent treatment, whatever it was, also serves to warn and influence others who might also have otherwise committed similar crimes. So even in a predestined world punishment would have a deterrent effect on others as it will influence others. In fact the only difference between a universe which allows for free will (somehow) and a predestined universe is the idea of “blame”.

The “free will” universe blames the wrongdoer, but the predestined universe doesn’t as the wrongdoer could not do otherwise than he did. There are still reasons for punishment in a deterministic universe in spite of that.

Incompatiblists agree that determinism leaves ...
Incompatiblists agree that determinism leaves no room for free will. As a result, they reject one or both. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)