Over the many, many millennia since we started living as a society, we have developed systems to ensure good behavior in people for the good of all. Punishment has been an important tool in those systems. Punishment is one of the key tools in the criminal justice system. But is punishment really effective? Does it make sense? Or should we look towards other means?
The idea behind punishment
Whether on a governmental scale or an interpersonal scale, punishment is meant to influence someone’s behavior. We use it to discourage unwanted behavior in people. When someone commits a crime, they get a fine or a jail sentence, and we hope that as a result they won’t commit that crime anymore.
The bigger the transgression, the bigger the punishment. Double parking might yield you a fine, but being a serial killer probably lands you in jail for the rest of your life.
As a society, we feel that the punishment should reflect the size of the transgression, and that’s what we call fair. A $10 fine for murder leads to public outrage, but so does getting a life sentence for stealing an apple.
The bigger we consider the crime to be, the stronger the discouragement should be. Sounds quite reasonable, doesn’t it?
Punishment and reinforcement
One way of influencing someone’s behavior and habits is through positive or negative reinforcement.
Positive reinforcement is when a certain behavior is rewarded, stimulating that person to repeat that behavior.
It should be noted that punishment and negative reinforcement are not the same thing. Because in negative reinforcement, the end goal is still to increase a certain behavior – hence the term ‘reinforcement’.
But the goal of punishment is not to increase certain behaviors, but to decrease them.
Negative reinforcement is, for example, when you clean your room so your parents stop nagging. It’s the stimulus (the nagging) that leads to the behavior (cleaning the room).
But with punishment, it’s the other way around. First the behavior happens, then the punishment follows.
You can read more about reinforcement and punishment here.
The psychology of punishment
The idea behind punishment is to stop someone from doing something you don’t want them to do. If a kid hits another kid in class, the teacher could make the kid write lines. The hope is that writing lines is so uncomfortable, that the kid won’t hit another kid again.
Knowing that there are consequences to your actions stops you from doing certain things. You won’t run a red light because you’ll get a fine. You won’t steal from your boss because they’ll fire you.
The trick is that the consequence has to be uncomfortable enough to actually stop someone from doing something.
That why I usually advocate for fines that depend on your income. Because $50 could be a pittance to a rich man, but could also mean not being able to make rent to someone else.
In both cases, the crime is the same. So the level of discomfort caused by the punishment should also be the same. Otherwise rich people would be less discouraged to do something than poorer people would.
But that isn’t even the most glaring issue with the way our punishments work.
Punishment limits understanding
Our criminal justice system has been around for so long that we’ve become estranged from the reasons why certain behaviors yield punishment.
We discourage certain behaviors in others, but often because it’s against the rules. And without realizing why it is against the rules.
Punishment has become so central to us, that our reasoning not to do something is “because otherwise we’ll be punished”.
Do we still know and truly understand why there are punishments for certain behaviors? Or have we all reduced it to “because it’s wrong”?
Why people commit crimes
If you look at criminals who have committed assault, rape, or murder, will punishment really deter them from that behavior?
When a criminal commits another crime after having been in jail, we call that recidivism. And the rates of recidivism around the world are startlingly high.
Clearly punishment isn’t as effective at discouraging unwanted behavior as we’d want it to be. So what’s happening here?
The problem with just handing out punishments is that it completely sidesteps the cause of the behavior. Putting people in jail does nothing to address why it is that they committed that crime in the first place.
Why people don’t commit crimes
There’s a good chance that you, dear reader, are not a criminal. But why? Is it because of the fear of the consequences? Or do you have another reason?
Personally, I don’t feel like it’s the justice system that keeps me from murdering and raping my way through town. I don’t commit murder because I don’t want to commit murder, not because I don’t want to end up in jail.
If you were to completely erase the justice system overnight, and there would be no more sanctions for anything, of course crime rates will increase.
But it’s not like everyone would suddenly start stealing and murdering. Why? Because of morals and values.
I think rape is wrong. But not because it’ll get you in jail. I think it’s wrong because it harms someone else, and I think consciously and willingly harming someone else is always wrong.
I don’t have any desire to hurt or maim anyone else or to steal someone’s belongings. I’m sure you probably don’t either.
The smart thing to do would be to look at the people who don’t commit crimes, and find out why that is. And then try to apply that to the people who do commit crimes. And that’s precisely what isn’t happening in the punishment system.
So all a criminal will learn from doing time in prison, is that they’ll get another prison sentence if they’re caught committing the same crime. If they don’t get caught, they don’t get another prison sentence.
So instead of actually teaching someone why they shouldn’t do what they did, you’re actually teaching them that they can do it as long as they don’t get caught. Or that they can do it if they’re willing to pay the fine or go to prison for a while.
It doesn’t actually prevent them from even wanting to commit that crime again.
A more effective approach
Our current focus is too much on the front end of criminal justice, and too little on the back end. All too often people are left to fend for themselves once they get out of jail. And for many people, it’s very hard to build a normal life as an ex-con, and there’s little to no support from our criminal justice system.
It’s hard to find a job, it’s hard to find acceptance, it’s hard to return to everyday life. People feel isolated and alienated and don’t get enough support when trying to reintegrate into society.
But on top of that, they often haven’t learned why the crime they committed was wrong. “Just because it is” is not an argument. It doesn’t help them to really understand, to really see why they shouldn’t do it.
Whenever someone commits a crime, there should be far more attention for finding out what led them to commit it, why they did it. Finding out why they didn’t think it was wrong enough not to do it. And then helping them see the reason why.
Or maybe it’s an unaddressed mental health issue. Maybe someone just needs someone to care about them, maybe they just need therapy and proper counselling.
Certain crimes like rape and murder can often be the result of unresolved childhood trauma. Usually it’s not people from healthy, loving families that turn to a life of crime. It happens, of course. But far more often it’s people who are broken, rejected, and dispirited who commit serious crimes.
How we can prevent serious crimes
I’m sure there will be people who take offense to what I’m about to say. I’m sure a lot of people will have their judgments ready and will fume against it. But I’m going to say it anyway.
People who commit serious crimes need more of our attention, care, acceptance and guidance.
The more we isolate and ostracize them, the more angry they’ll become with the world. You might think it might drive them to behave to fit in again, but it’s clear from the recidivism numbers that that’s absolutely not the result in a lot of cases.
We need to start seeing these people as people who need help, people who do what they do because they are hurting. There’s a saying, “hurt people hurt people”. And I think it rings true.
These people are often unaware of the immense hurt they caused. And if they’re aware of it, they might not feel remorse because the world hurt them too. Far too many crimes occur because the criminal feels like the world owes them something. Like the world doesn’t deserve their compassion because the world showed no compassion for them.
The similarities with addiction
A lot of the same things also go for drug addiction. Most of the time, people don’t turn to drugs because their life is great and they feel so happy and comfortable.
No, they turn to drugs to fill a void in their lives. They turn to drugs as a last-ditch attempt to feel fulfilled.
Drug addicts, just like people who commit serious crimes, are so often people from broken homes, who have suffered greatly, who have so many voids in their lives to fill.
In what I experienced as a mind-blowing and eye-opening TEDtalk, Johann Hari explains how compassion and bonding are far more affective at treating drug addiction than punishments and interventions. Ostracizing and penalizing addicts only increases their need to feel good, and pushes them further into addiction.
You can watch that TEDtalk below, or view it at the TED website.
The bottom line
I don’t think punishment is an effective tool for discouraging unwanted behavior. For some petty things like chewing gum in class or running a red light it might be. But for the bigger issues in society – murder, rape, addiction, corruption, abuse – you’ll need a different approach.
An approach that doesn’t teach criminals that all they have to do to evade punishment is making sure you don’t get caught. An approach that doesn’t give drug addicts who already feel isolated the feeling that they’re being ostracized even more.
We need to teach people who perform unwanted behavior why that behavior is unwanted. Make sure that they not only see but also understand the consequences. That the next time they have that choice, they’ll refrain from doing it again not because of the punishment, but because they no longer believe it’s the right thing to do.
We need to pay attention to those that need help and guidance. When people make mistakes, we need to treat them as humans first, as equals. We need to acknowledge how many drug addicts and criminals are just one therapist or one true and caring friend away from being a better person.
It is vitally important that our first response to someone doing something bad is not to put them down, cast them out, and punish them.
The first response should be finding out why they did what they did and if we can help. Either help them so that they won’t feel the need to do it again, or help them see life in a way that doesn’t cause them to do it.
If we understand that it’s our own tradition of ostracizing, shaming, and excluding people that’s making it worse, we can start to change things.
Of course not everyone can be so easily rehabilitated. Of course there are people that you virtually can’t change. There are definitely people who are just born as a psychopath. People who are neurologically unable to become what we consider a good person. There are people who will possibly always be a danger to society, whom we maybe shouldn’t back into it.
But right now we’re looking at things backwards. We’re starting from the wrong end.
It’s natural for us humans to form judgment over someone. But the way things are now, we are inclined to start from the negative until proven otherwise.
We are inclined to think badly of someone, which makes it very hard for that person to redeem themselves.
I want to advocate that we start from a place of compassion, empathy, and a willingness to understand the other. I want to urge people to think positively of someone until proven otherwise.
And it’s okay if it turns out otherwise. But even then, seek to understand where they’re coming from and why they do what they do.
Because a lot of the time, where people see evil and malicious intent, it’s just people who need help. People who are acting out against the world that hurt them. Or people who are plainly uninformed or incompetent.
We absolutely do not need to allow every kind of behavior. Treating someone with compassion doesn’t mean justifying and allowing what they do. It means that you see that there’s a human being behind the behavior. A human being that probably needs to be helped and educated instead of punished and ostracized.