Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Sweet Danish Jesus!

I've abstained from posting since February 20, partly out of deference to Tommaso's right to not have his posts "stepped on," but mostly because I've been very busy with academics and the Squelch. It's curious that a man who reports to work over 50 hours a week would have so much free time, manifesting itself as lengthy internet political commentary. (It's also curious that a man making as much money at said job as he does would abandon it to invent a product that no one needs. Honestly, Tom....But I chide because I love.)

On that note, I would like to introduce you to The Brick Testament, a vivid collection of all the Bible's greatest hits, illustrated using that remarkable Scandinavian toy the LEGO. I'm especially impressed by the crucifixion.

But did I rudely trump Tommaso's hypothetical free trade scenario just to show you a novelty website? Yeah, mostly. But I also wanted to discuss the nature of justice and punishment. How's that for in over my head?

One of my favorite television shows currently being produced is Cell Dogs on Animal Planet. It's a documentary-type program that shows how "death-row" (mostly misbehaved or abused that would otherwise be euthanized) pups are put into the care prison inmates for 30 days to several months until they can be adopted or used as service dogs. Both sides win: the dog gets a second chance to live in a loving home, and the prisoner is in turn shown love in exchange for his care and responsibility. It's remarkable how these cell dog programs emotionally effect every participant (from the armed robber to the murderer to the drug dealer), how the shell of a big violent man could be cracked by a diminutive terrier, and how the inmates voluntarily undertake so much responsibility in exchange for companionship. Many of the inmates interviewed identify with the dogs, citing that both have made mistakes but are getting another opportunity to engage in a loving relationship.

This brings me to analyze what the point of justice is. Why are people punished? This can either be very theoretical or very concrete.


1. To undue the crime that was originally committed. This is straightforward, and only possible in disputes over money or property or something that can be returned. Prison sentences cannot undue crime.

2. To "give back" to the community what the criminal took. This punishment would be community service or a financial contribution to society; i.e. picking up trash or paying a parking ticket.

3. To prevent that person from repeating the same crime. Putting a murderer in prison prevents him from going out and killing someone else.


4. To provide an incentive for NOT committing crime. Punishment as a deterrent. If I know I'll get 10 years for armed robbery, I'll think of a better way to get money, like getting a job.

5. To "pay" for your crime. Serving your time or life to intangibly right the wrongs you incurred on others. Killing a murderer because it is "fair" and fits the crime, or putting a tax cheat in prison for five years because she did something wrong and should "pay" for it somehow.

6. To reform. Giving the criminal the opportunity to realize his mistakes and desire to change his ways, whether on his own or with the help of prison staff.

(And of course combinations thereof. Are there more reasons? Please list them as you see fit.)

I can very easily agree with all these descriptions except #5. Assuming that a crime could be rectified by punitive punishment alone is a primitive idea based on the assumption that one person's suffering equates to another's happiness. Putting a rapist in prison in and of itself can never un-do the crime or remove the victim's pain; it can merely prevent the perpetrator from harming another person.

At the risk of sounding condescending, I believe crime and subequent punishment could be thought of in the same terms as discipline between parent and child. If your 8-year-old kid draws a picture of himself on the wall in crayon, you make the brat clean it up (and you give him a solid scolding as to why we don't deface property). Punishment equals crime. If your kid kicks a dog on purpose, you make her sit on his bed for about 15 minutes (though to her it will feel like a lifetime) so she can think about it, then you make her explain to you why kicking animals is wrong. Punishment, in some intangible way, equals crime. No where in child-rearing is there a need to hit or smack or otherwise physically intimidate your kid. All it teaches them is that using violence and power is an appropriate step towards getting your way.

Obviously drawing on the wall is not the same as molesting your nephew or whatever. I guess the point I'm circuitously attempting to make is that there is no identifyable reason to imprison a criminal except for reasons #1-4 and #6. I'll be able to debate this more eloquently when I'm not running late for work.


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