Crime and Punishment (part 2)
July/August 1998

Empowering People

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In part one, I questioned whether punishment actually solves the problem of crime, and wondered about the true cost of this system. I concluded that this seemingly simple, fair, practical and effective equation of "an eye for an eye," (beaccountable, if you do the crime, you serve the time; let justice be served) is actually not simple, fair, practical, or effective; that, inasmuch as it is a violent solution to violence, it fosters violence instead of resolving it; that instead of being a search for truth, it moves people to deny guilt and eschew responsibility; that it wastes many lives that could otherwise be fulfilling and contribute to society, and that it disturbs a growing number of innocent people’s lives. I also wondered whether the solution to this predicament is simply a matter of fixing a system that’s being administered poorly; or whether the system itself is the problem.
For millennia, we’ve believed that people did antisocial things because they were insane, evil, or bad. For centuries, insane people were alternately thought to be possessed by the devil or demons and subjected to exorcisms, or believed to be defective and locked away in asylums. Only much more recently have we entertained the possibility–albeit very ambivalently--that people do disturbing things as a consequence of their upbringings.)
We punish people, more than anything else, in order to even the score–for payback–as well as to demonstrate, both to them and to others who might consider criminal acts, that "crime doesn’t pay." Currently, there are three basic methods of punishment: 1) fines, reparation,and community service; 2) incarceration; and 3) execution. Typically, lesser crimes are punished by fines and/or reparations and/or public service. More egregious crimes are punished by incarceration--the more heinous the crime, the longer the incarceration. Execution is the punishment reserved for the most onerous crimes, such as murder
We commonly give three reasons for incarcerating people. The first, of course, is to punish. A second reason is to protect society from those people who we believe are liable to cause us harm.(I’ll feel safer with all those crooks off the street.") To me, this concept of pro-active protection is alarmingly unconstitutional and is sometimes disturbingly extended beyond incarceration. This is often the case when it comes to dealing with sex offenders, because the rate at which they re-offend is very high. In Washington state, for example, even though they have served their time and have purportedly "paid their debt to society," they are treated as potential threats after release: They are compelled to register as sex offenders and keep law enforcement informed about where they are living. In addition, law enforcement is required to notify the people in the neighborhood that their neighbor is a sex offender. This has led to extreme hazard for ex-convict sex offenders who as a result have had their houses burned down and been run out of town.)
The third reason for incarcerating people, championed in the nineteenth century by the Quakers, is to rehabilitate. From this perspective, a person sitting isolated in prison will be moved to reflect upon his or her behavior, and will thereby come to realize the error of his or her way and become penitent (hence the term "penitentiary"). In my view, rehabilitation is a pejorative term, because it polarizes: It infers that there is something wrong with the person to be rehabilitated–that the person is bad or sick–while nothing is wrong with the people doing the rehabilitating; it thereby perpetuates the disturbing "good guy/bad guy," disturbed/normal, "us vs. them" attitude.
In my view, incarceration is a form of torture and abuse –no matter whether it’s to punish, protect or rehabilitate. If you have trouble grasping this, just for the moment imagine being in a violent and unfriendly place, one often devoid of creature comforts and where you are at the mercy of the whims of guards and other inmates, have no privacy, little or no protection from the violence, and virtually no choice about what you do or when or where you do it (e.g., about what you eat or when or where you can eat it)--and which you cannot choose to leave, no matter how desperately you want to.
Take the time to picture what it would be like to be locked up like this , unable to leave or take "time out" for only a week or two. How does that feel? It might not seem too bad if you were certain that you’d be getting out in a matter of weeks. It might even seem like an interesting and pleasant respite from life’s burdens.
But now imagine being forced to stay there, say, for a whole year. All of your ongoing projects (relationships, family, business, play) are now forced to be on hold (at best) and you are uncertain whether you will be able to pick them up again when you are released: Will your wife be waiting for you? Will your child still see you as daddy? Will others treat you like a leper? What does that feel like? 
Now suppose that your sentence is not one year, but ten years or twenty years. (If you’re having difficulty getting a handle on how long that is and what that experience would be like, take a moment to recollect all that you’ve done and all that’s happened to you during the past ten or twenty years.) 
I hear a lot people complaining that prison terms are too short. They talk about twenty year prison sentences, for example, as though they were slaps on the wrist. I think that it’s easy for us to be indifferent about handing out lengthy jail sentences, and to think that being imprisoned is some sort of picnic and that meting out a ten year sentence is going easy on someone, as long as we’re not the ones serving the sentence and we aren’t being called to consider what this experience is really like for the person who is.
I am outraged when I hear those people complain that someone was sentenced to only ten years. I suggest that the vast majority of convicts had ongoing lives in which their "criminal" activity played only a very small part, that incarceration does great damage to the "ongoingness" of their lives, particularly when it is already disturbed (and that further disturbing this ongoingness exacts a large price on us all). 
I had a colleague who was imprisoned for just one day, for failing to pay alimony. The experience shook him up so much that he swore that he would do anything to avoid being imprisoned again. And when I was on active duty, even though I was an officer, and had considerable discretion regarding what I did with my free time, and where I could go, I still had the sense that I was "in custody." The three years seemed like forever and I gave a deep sigh of relief and literally kissed the ground after leaving the base for the last time. Yet this experience was absolutely nothing compared to what it’s actually like to be incarcerated. It has long scared me to realize that in spite of my best efforts to be a good citizen I could still someday find myself incarcerated for some unforeseen infraction.
Punishing is actually revenging: I punish to hurt back the person who has hurt (scared, angered, disappointed) me. This is essentially my behavior as a very young child, before I have learned how to request care by accurately and respectfully telling the other person that he or she has hurt me, and before I’ve gained the experience and maturity to realize that my pain can matter to the other person. 
With little reflection, and scant evidence that it is of any value to either society or the defendant, we have traditionally and almost universally punished those judged to be guilty of crimes. But, as psychologist Rollo May has pointed out, as we make people powerless, we encourage violence, rather than control it. What we have generally failed to recognize is that by punishing, we have perpetuated a process of abandonment and disempowerment, which is the very process that--in the family as well as the community-- has led to both disturbing behavior and our obsessive pursuit of justice.
Punishing people inevitably results in greater woundedness, resentment and rage. This moves those punished still farther from authentic expression and further disempowers them. It results in a greater--rather than a lesser--tendency to act out violently. 
Punishment shames us and polarizes us (into good guys and bad guys, us vs. them–they’re criminals, we’re good citizens). This allows the good guys (law enforcement, parents, teachers, bosses, clerics) to maintain a fiction that they have never done and are not doing anything disturbing or offensive and that the bad guys (criminals, naughty children, errant spouses, mischievous students, malingering employees, sinners) are bad people, worthy of our disdain rather than our care and concern.
We--individually and jointly--abandon others in this way, in order to abandon ourselves; and this we do so as to avoid experiencing our own pain. (In other words, I must risk recognizing and experiencing my own pain if I am to recognize and be truly concerned about your pain. And we’ve chosen this path simply because we don’t know how to truly minister to our wounded selves: no one taught us how.
For me, there is no such thing as an evil or a bad person. These are only wounded people who have been disempowered: They have been attacked by the people responsible for their care and prohibited from expressing themselves authentically. They have been so wounded that they act out their pain in violent and self-defeating ways, rather than live it out via authentic expression. As long they are in significant personal pain, then, they will almost inevitably act out with self-disturbing behavior, like overeating, being unassertive, or becoming alcoholic; or by disturbing others, like lying, getting into fights, stealing, or murdering. (There is no self-disturbing that is not other-disturbing, and no other-disturbing that is not self-disturbing.) So, if punishment doesn’t help, what might work? I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I do know the direction we have to go. It’s really important to note here that the solution is not simply a matter of their choosing new behaviors (as most dieters will verify). "Just say ‘no’" is a patently unrealistic strategy.
I have long sensed the unfairness and brutality of the legal system, and recognized that it regularly disempowers the people in its care; but I didn’t know much about what could be done about it. My thinking on the subject was really jolted a few years ago when I was watching a documentary on PBS about rural Mexican justice. A drunk driver had run off the road and damaged a woman’s house. Sometime shortly thereafter, the driver faced the woman with the magistrate acting as mediator. Instead of being an adversarial proceeding, as would be the case here, they engaged in a dialogue until they arrived at a mutually acceptable solution (which, as I recall, involved the driver’s donating his labor to the repair of the house and a schedule of financial reparation).
This has led me to view crime from a very different perspective. The perspective of being wounded/acting out-and-healing involves a totally different world view from that of crime-and-punishment. From this perspective, we view people as wounded, not bad, and we really are concerned about our fellow humans in pain (particularly our children). Our aim here is to empower people who commit "crimes," rather than to disempower them. We acknowledge their pain instead of trying to deny it, demean it, or take it away, and we recognize their violent acts as symptoms of their pain and of their need for care, rather than occasions for punishment and abandonment. Here, when one person does damage to another, there is mediation and treatment, both of which endeavor to help perpetrators complete their unfinished pasts/selves, as well as to arrive at mutually acceptable solutions for dealing with the damage done. 
Here, those offenders who refuse this treatment, or are too wounded to engage in it, are incarcerated in venues that are pleasant, growth and healing supportive, human sized (small enough to permit real connection between the inmates and the staff, probably housing between 50 and 100 people), open enough to provide real contact with people outside the institution, and with truly respectful treatment by an empathic staff. 
I’m convinced that wounded people (which is almost all of us) can not and will not heal–and therefore cannot embody a genuine concern for others’ pain--unless and until they are involved in "completing" their "unfinished pasts/selves;" and that this is as true for the caregivers as for those they’re helping to heal.
In order for this to be enacted, this perspective also has to be embraced by families, schools, companies, etc. In order to get there a sufficient number of us have to make considerable progress in completing our unfinished pasts/selves. Of course, I consider the Organic Process (primal) to be an essential means for achieving this goal. 
Although I am certain that all this is possible, I am pessimistic about our culture actually getting beyond the crime-and-punishment world view which, as I have said, is self-perpetuating. I am no longer hopeful that this is a destination that can be arrived at one person at a time (the "hundredth monkey" phenomenon). I believe that if it is to occur, we somehow have to approach it en masse. But so long as we keep believing that we can choose what we want and feel, and that we don’t need to experience our unfinished selves, I am afraid that we can not get there.

Go to part 3

©1998 Stephen E. Linn, Ph.D. • Empowering People


Punishing people inevitably results in greater woundedness, resentment and rage. This moves those punished still farther from authentic expression and further disempowers them. It results in a greater—rather than a lesser—tendency to act out violently.

Empowering People

Essays on Being Human

Chapter 1
On Feeling
Chapter 2
On Pain
Chapter 3
Being Depressed
Chapter 4
On Primal

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