The Poverty of Punishment

Jail courtyard

The failure of punishment to deter harmful behaviour is glaringly apparent in the daily choices of tens of thousands of ordinary Canadians.

The claims are familiar: punishing the wrongdoing of others acts as a deterrent. We talk about miscreants “learning their lesson” or “getting their just deserts”, or if not them, the application of pain or discomfort “delivers a message to others” which generally prevents crime – should someone dare contemplate a criminal act. We believe these things based on our experiences and the stories we tell or hear.

So why doesn’t it work?

Punishment requires that unwanted behaviour is prevented from occurring or reoccurring; if the forbidden behaviour is not extinguished, then punishment did not occur. However, we explain recidivism (repeat offending) not so much by the utter failure of punishment, but by the absence of severity, certainty or a swiftness of its application. Punishment only has to be more strategically applied for it to deliver the behavioural changes which it promises. However, since the days when pick-pockets risked death while working the crowds at London’s public executions during the Tudor reign, the evidence is stacked against this shibboleth.

If deterrent effect of punishment is the threat of unpleasant consequences, then we have many thousands of citizens who fail to be punished for their socially irresponsible behaviours. Consider the number of people who willfully engage in one or more risky, life-threatening behaviours:

In all of the above harms, the risks are well-known to the population. But  the prevalence of these behaviours suggests that the consequences (or punishment) is ineffective when it comes in the form of an analogous outcome: lethal or injurious car accidents, cancer, heart disease, sexually transmitted diseases, or addiction.

If the punishment of these common and harmful behaviours does not deter “ordinary” Canadians, why should we expect it to fix “criminals”? Maybe we don’t understand how punishment “works”, or if it works at all.



Solutions to Crime, Part 1: Peacekeeping Canada

110519-N-NY820-218 MANTA, Ecuador (May 19, 2011) Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Courtney Arthur paints a wall at Angelica Flores Zambrano school during a Continuing Promise 2011 community service event. Continuing Promise is a five-month humanitarian assistance mission to the Caribbean, Central and South America. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Eric C. Tretter/Released)
Photo credit: US Navy "Creative Commons" license
Peacekeeping for the Public Good

In my last post, I suggested that there are features shared by the RCMP and the Hells Angels. Both are identifiable organizations or “gangs” which attract young people by offering excitement, camaraderie and the prospect of status and material rewards. Canada can fund its own gang several times larger than our national police force through “incentivized” military service. Done properly, this national organization can draw recruits by appealing to young people’s social and individual needs. Here’s what it can look like…

While students are in Grade 10, they are offered an opportunity to join the military as peacekeepers, provided they satisfactorily complete Grade 12. Volunteers will join “peacekeeping cadets”, showing up on Saturday mornings and at least one evening a week at a designated school or other public facility. They will be provided initial training in first aid, rescue, and survival skills in mock situations. The prospect of becoming full-time members of Peacekeeping Canada (PC) after graduation must be reinforced during their last two years of high school. At about age 15, this opportunity will counteract the short time horizons which are characteristic of many youth in this developmental stage. Above all, their training experiences must be meaningful and led by role models who are competent educators. Once students graduate from high school, they are offered these incentives in exchange for a two-year commitment Peacekeeping Canada:

  • Bi-weekly pay at minimum wage and residency in existing barracks or those which can be renovated or constructed by the first cohorts of peacekeepers.
  • The prospect of earning a two-year “Apprenticeship Diploma” in applied fields such as solar and wind-based power generation, electronics, construction, hazardous waste collection, parks and recreation maintenance, fisheries, forestry, or agriculture, subject to local opportunities.
  • Applied experience as peacekeepers who have as their mandate the protection of the environment, enhancing public space, and other worthwhile projects.
  • Travel to other parts of Canada for public works or for providing assistance in emergencies such as floods and tornadoes.
  • A bonus of $10,000 for completion of the two-year program and paid tuition the first two years of university or a four-year trade program. The second two years of education would be funded with low-interest or interest-free loans. Alternatively, graduates can remain with the Peacekeepers and fulfill leadership and training roles without the requirement to live in residency.

The two-year experience will focus on developing interpersonal skills, cooperative activities with teams and groups, engaging in worthwhile local community activities, health awareness, and physical fitness. Peacekeeping leaders will reinforce the values of cooperation and facilitate supportive communication. A sense of personal responsibility and service to Canada must be a salient feature of recruit’s education and applied training.

The benefits returned by PC would be in the form of lower crime rates, health costs and increased tourism as nation-wide public works improvements add value to Canada’s natural environment and urban spaces. The money earned by the recruit’s labour will be circulated back into local economies rather than being “outsourced” like the practice in many private sector companies.

The logistics of this plan must be addressed, but some general guidelines for implementation could include:

  • Local direction of Peacekeeping Canada’s  public works through provincial boards of directors which include partnerships with the private sector;
  • Continual and ongoing evaluation of the two-year peacekeeping service in terms of implementation and outcome of recruits and benefits to local economies;
  • Funding for Peacekeeping Canada will come from taxing profits made through currency exchanges, much like the “Tobin Tax” as proposed by Noble Laureate James Tobin in 1972 and recently endorsed by Bill Gates.

The cost of Peacekeeping Canada can also be supplemented through hemp farming, manufacturing and sales. That’s Part 2 in a five-part series of ideas for dealing with crime in Canada, forthcoming.

– John

Justice Minister Nicholson: Do you really want to control crime?

October 30 2011

Dear Mr. Nicholson,

Like you, I too want our country to be a safe place where criminal victimization is a rare occurrence. However, I have concerns about Bill C-10 which is currently being rushed through Parliament.

Bill C-10 is uninformed by the negative experiences which the USA has had with their own mandatory minimum sentencing laws at the state and federal levels. Your government’s declaration to control crime appears to be without the advice from experts in Canada and abroad who argue that there are more effective solutions than a simplistic “lock ‘em up” response. In your statements to the public, you invoke “victims of crime” as the beneficiaries of the government’s crime bill. It’s difficult to see how your advocacy for  prison solutions will help victims.

By putting people in jail for non-violent crimes like the possession of cannabis plants, the government is exposing these prisoners to criminal value systems, the risk of physical violence, and the prospect that imprisonment will foreclose their chances for social reintegration upon release. Given those risks, are we likely to see law-abiding citizens emerge from Canadian jails?

Sadly, the assumptions behind the laws which the government is about to invoke have never been put to rational or empirical scrutiny. The policies which you advocate blindly assume that the threat of punishment is 1) known to  2) rational offenders who will 3) calculate the costs and benefits of a criminal act and 4) choose not to make criminal decisions. The real world is different from what is envisaged by the forthcoming laws because

  1. few ordinary Canadians know the maximum sentence for any crime except murder, let alone the group to which you refer to as “criminals”;
  2. offenders often make choices in an irrational state of mind caused by alcohol, drugs, desperation, or with brains which are compromised by neurophysiological damage at birth (e.g., fetal alcohol syndrome);
  3. criminal decisions are rational in the minds of some offenders when faced with the alternatives;
  4. criminal choices may be specific to a particular developmental period in a person’s life (e.g, youth crime) and should not mortgage their future with a prison sentence.

Your government’s emphasis on criminal deterrence through punishment will expand the enforcement and corrections bureaucracies at great cost to ordinary Canadians. If asked, most Canadians would prefer to redirect money for jails into education, health care and early childhood intervention.

Crime policies must be guided by research and have an evaluation component built into them. Is your government prepared to have an independent evaluation of the consequences of Bill C-10 in five years to see if crime and rates have been affected? The absence of evaluation makes your government’s declarations to control crime a somewhat hollow and costly objective.

I ask that you stop Bill C-10 and establish an independent commission of diverse citizens and experts to create an evidence-based crime prevention plan for Canada.

John Anderson, PhD
Chair, Criminology Department
Vancouver Island University
Nanaimo, BC V9R 5S5