Against the current views on crime and punishment

IssueDecember 2001 - February 2002
Feature by Dr Clara Meijer Wichmann

Why is punishment inflicted? Most people don't even ask themselves that question. For them it is evident that prisons exist, cells in which those who have transgressed the penal laws of this society are locked-up, for weeks or months or even for years. They walk past these prisons, and are not disturbed by their existence.

Others, who have examined this question, find it easy to answer: a sense of justice, they say, demands repayment for injustice committed. Or they put forward the interests of society and determine that society should protect itself against infringements of its order by deterring crime, by - if possible - making the criminal better, and - if this is, in their opinion, not possible - by rendering them harmless.

Pain and exclusion

This reasoning presupposes that the person who infringes the existing penal laws is a bad person, [...] and that the society in which the majority condemn such people is a truly humane society. It also presupposes [...] that inflicting pain and exclusion are appropriate reactions against “criminals”. From the bottom of our hearts, we think all of this is wrong and tragic: an un-salutary delusion that keeps inhumane relationships alive.

It is obviously untrue that our present-day law represents an eternal truth; because it protects the property-owning classes, it upholds the existing property relationships as if they were worth upholding at any price. It's nice and easy to think that most condemned people are moral deficients, and most of the un-condemned are people of a superior order; but truly, it's not that simple! While we are not at all underestimating the importance of personal aptitude, we are absolutely not saying that what a person is driven to depends solely on the circumstances; but we see that aptitude and circumstances influence each other continually, in constant interaction.

But reflect that, in all countries, the vast majority of condemned people, even in relation to their share in the population, belong to the un-propertied classes! If crime only proceeded from “the evil of the hearts”, would that still be the case?

"Improvement" and deterrence

Let us think [...] of those criminals who would really need improvement. What does punishment then do to them? The punishment pushes them down, humiliates them, robs them of their last bit of resilience. From the start of the criminal procedure onwards, they are placed in opposition to society, regarded as enemies.

As a result of all this the inner development, which follows every action, and also every wrong deed, is broken off; [...] the inner healing process is disturbed. In essence, in this day and age, the criminal is still not treated as a human, but processed as a thing. Everything that merits being called humane is denied him [or her] in prison. In prison he [or she] doesn't even have the opportunity to turn his good resolutions into deeds; and this is why improvement of the criminal through prison is impossible. Can prison deter then? Little. The rise and fall of criminality are, in general, determined by wholly other causes than the effect of punishment, [this is] ... continuously demonstrated by the large number of repeat offenders. But above all, the whole concept of deterrence is immoral, because it regards human beings solely as a means.

Render them harmless then? The term itself is unworthy! And the result of this attempt is that many leave prison “more harmful” than they went in. Awaken the good in people, do what you can to make them strong, to let all the positive and constructive capabilities inside them grow; but don't attempt to render them “harmless”.

[While some].. among the criminals [are] “incorrigibles”, in whom it seems nothing good can be awakened, who in their whole person appear sub-human, victims of degeneration ... [We should] regard and treat them as people who are sick, and not think of “punishing” them any more than we in our day would punish crazy people.

The concept of punishment

But more powerful than all these “purposes” it is hoped punishment will achieve, [is] the old retaliation principle [which] lives on in people where revenge has hidden itself. It calls for letting the person who caused suffering also suffer pain, it desires “repaying” everything and evening the score. Penal law is just one manifestation [of something] we find in all domains of personal and social life. [...] We are deeply convinced [that] we oppose the whole concept of punishment itself. It is not how human to human relationships should be, it is not the way people should face each other. We propose another principle of life: do not judge. Do not retaliate. Do not punish. Do not reward. But try with all the power within you to create a truly humane society, in which the conditions for growth and development for every person are present; and try - in yourself and others - to overcome evil through good. Crime can only be fought indirectly; not by destroying forces, but by awakening forces, by transforming what started destructively into something constructive.

In a true Community there would be a willingness to help each other overcome our difficulties; for which we would be prepared to sacrifice many an immediate “interest”. We wouldn't, as we do now, always have in mind the “objects of law which are threatened”, but instead the human being, who always faces a struggle with themselves. We would know that when one of our own succumbed in that struggle, it was our common failure.

And therefore - even though we will rejoice over each real improvement that is made to penal law and the penal system - our aim is wider: we ask for radical transformation, not partial changes; we see another principle appear on the horizon: that of a new era, of a brotherly humanity, which will break the principle of punishment.

Topics: Prison