Thursday, November 24, 2005

Crime and Punishment

I was reading this article on the register which got me thinking about the issue of breaking minor laws.

Now I'd like to think that the police do actually have better things to be doing than worrying about whether somebody occasionally does 31mph in a 30mph zone. On the other hand, I also think that if you get caught speeding in one of these areas, you only have yourself to blame. It works both ways really - you can only moan so far when you are actually breaking a law.

But anyway, a discussion on speeding isn't really what I was after. What I was really thinking of was one of the things that John Locke discussed about social law. Basically, what Locke said was that actually, the major part of a crime was not the specifics of the crime itself, but that it showed a disrespect for the laws of society as a whole. The outcome (which I've discussed before) was in tarring all criminals, however small, as outsiders and therefore easier to punish - too easy to maintain his comfortable state of nature.

However, regardless of the failure of the extended argument, the basis of the argument is worthy of some thought. Regardless of the severity of the crime, committing it in the first placedoes show a disrespect for society. For example, the biggest reason why most people don't commit crimes isn't because of the legal deterrent, but simply because that is not the way they live their life. It may not actually be respect per se, but it is obviously something other than the threat of punishment. If we accept this, then how far does that set a criminal apart from 'an ordinary person'?

I don't know if there is a clear-cut answer to this, but I think one thing is does show is that we need to be looking at the underlying causes of crime and tailor our responses accordingly. If offenders really do see society in a different way to the rest of us, is there anything we can do to solve this - either by changing their view or changing ours. Also, it suggests that a penal deterrent may not be the best way of putting people off committing crimes, as whilst it may work for on mindset, it clearly doesn't work for another. It's very easy, for example with the current debate over punishment for people illegally owning guns, to simply 'stick another five years on', as if a longer sentence will cut crimes. It's the kind of disengaged, reactionary approach which wont solve the problem because it's not addressing the problem. It might sound good to someone with no intention of committing crime in the first place, but if the deterrent wasn't the thing stopping someone committing a crime, then adding another five years to the sentence does squat.

Thing is, it's making the same mistakes as Locke did by failing to really enage with 'those people', whereas looking at why they feel they can or must commit crime in the first place would probably yeild better results in the long-run. Locke's decision to alienate criminals only resulted in his conception of the state of nature being a bit flawed, but continuing to alienate those people who commit crimes is obviously a far more serious matter.

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