Crime and punishment

By Antonia Feitz
web posted September 6, 1999

A few years ago, our car was stolen and torched. To make matters worse, it wasn't even our car, but one we'd borrowed while ours was being repaired. Unfortunately it was red, and as everybody knows, red cars go faster. Consequently they are irresistible to thieves.

The youth who stole and torched the car was arrested, went to court, and was sentenced to six months in a low security prison forest camp. This expensive legal process was of no benefit to the thief or to us. In fact it cost us, in taking time off to attend court.

About a year later, the thief came to our house one winter's night. I was sitting up reading when he appeared at the glass door. He was drunk, and holding a bottle of 'Coke'.

It is the custom of the more feral youth in these parts to buy a large Coke, tip out half, and replace it with a bottle of rum. Or for those who don't like the taste of alcohol but who like the effect, vodka.

We'll call him Jack. As I'm not one to hold grudges, I opened the door and said, "Hello, Jack". He stood there looking unutterably miserable. It was freezing with the door open, so I invited him in. He was only young, in his twenties, left school early, unemployed, the usual stuff. Totally inarticulate.

He came in, just stood, and continued to look woe-begone, swaying and saying nothing. Eventually he blurted out, "I'm sorry about the car!", and started crying. I took a deep breath and went to the pathetic creature and cuddled him, patting him and saying, "I know you are, Jack". I have four sons.

I invited him to sit down. Curious to understand his mentality, I asked, "Why did you do it?" But all he could say amid his weeping was, 'The grog made me do it, Mrs Feitz, it's the grog'.

Be that as it may, I thought the encounter was very instructive. For too many years now, the fashion in criminology has been to make excuses for criminals. Utopian social engineers are convinced society must be to blame for crime. All sorts of reasons for criminality are put forward. High-rise buildings were once the flavour of the month. Then poverty. Then racism. Then single parenthood. Then fatherlessness.

While all these factors undoubtedly contribute to higher rates of crime, the point that is studiously ignored is that people's morals - or rather the lack of them - are undoubtedly the most significant predictor of the likelihood of crime.

Let's face it: what an insult to the majority of residents in high-rise apartments it is to excuse social deviance on that factor. Do sociologists ever research the good and law-abiding poor? If not, why not? After all, the majority of poor people are decent human beings who instill moral values into their children.

Yes, certain categories of people ARE more likely to produce delinquents - but why? I suggest that the culture of making excuses for criminals is at the heart of the problem. How convenient it is to blame the design of housing estates. It wasn't me, Your Honour, it was my address.

Don't laugh. In the Sydney suburb of Villawood, a perfectly good, architect-designed housing estate looks likely be demolished because it is the locus of endemic ethnic gang-warfare and drug-trafficking.

But instead of dealing with the crims, the New South Wales state government has chosen to pander to the multiculturalists and blame the design of the housing estate for the problem. This, despite the fact that the ethnic groups concerned would never have enjoyed such a high standard of living back home. The government's plan is not only immoral, but a monumental waste of public money.

Though he was as thick as two bricks, Jack knew he had done wrong. The fact that he turned up on my doorstep, inarticulately begging for forgiveness despite having served his sentence, proves it. Committing crime is a moral, as well as a social failing. The legal system, while finding Jack guilty, failed him in not requiring him to make restitution for the wrong he had done. Yet only then can he ever enjoy a clear conscience.

I've long thought that locking people up, especially for non-violent crime is a stupid idea. It's also expensive. And considering that jails are known to be the universities of crime, it's manifestly counter-productive too.

But what to do? What is the alternative?

Some people say that boot camps are the way to go to instill some discipline into the young who - for whatever reason - have failed to learn it. Others say that harsh treatment of already troubled youth will only further brutalize them.

The historical responses to the problem of crime and punishment have been many and varied. Primitive societies didn't have jails, so punishment tended to be of the short and swift kind.

A couple of years ago an Australian judge made headlines when, in sentencing an Aboriginal man for manslaughter, he took into account the likelihood that the man would have to face tribal punishment. He did too. He was speared in the thighs by the males, and savagely beaten over the head by the female relatives of the deceased.

Astonishingly to Western people who have long lost the moral plot, far from being resentful, the Aboriginal man was grateful for his punishment. From his hospital bed he said things could now get back to normal. His family were talking to him again. In short, moral order had been restored.

In many societies, punishment has varied according to social class, as in ancient Rome. That's why St Paul enjoyed the relative luxury of being beheaded; he was a Roman citizen. And that's why St Peter endured the agony of crucifixion to achieve his crown of martyrdom; he wasn't.

Many nations still maintain corporal punishment, frequently cruel. Some Islamic Middle Eastern countries still amputate limbs for theft. Singapore flogs criminals with a cane. The punishment is so feared, recidivist rates are allegedly very low. Would the young American lad who copped a caning a few years ago re-offend by spraying more graffiti? In Singapore I mean. As if.

So what to do?

Some US judges have re-introduced the idea of shaming people, such as making them wear a shirt saying "I am a thief" in the vicinity of the store they stole from. In former days, shaming was the intended punishment of being sentenced to a period in the stocks. While not painful, the stocks physically restrained offenders who were then publicly shamed and forced to hear their victims and other interested persons berate and scold them for their crimes. By all accounts the odd tomato or egg was thrown too.

Serves them right. Like the Aboriginal man, crims once accepted that they deserved punishment. Nowadays they are irrationally encouraged to see themselves as victims. Too bad for the real victims.

Physical cruelty should not have a place in a civilized society, but the current system of jailing people has clearly failed. Shaming people is heading in the right direction in that it restores the idea that criminals must accept personal responsibility for their actions. Putting offenders to work would also be beneficial, but the problem of undercutting free workers always arises.

The whole area of crime and punishment needs a rethink, and sensible people should have an input. But it's not likely to happen while ideologues run the show.

Antonia Feitz is a regular contributor to Enter Stage Right. She also just happens to be the first person to use the word "grog" in a story for this magazine.

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