Tag Archives: punishment

Learning and Punishment

When young children get things wrong, it is because they don’t know better. The younger the child, the more obvious this should be. They may not grasp the cause and effect issues. They may have been curious, or bored – both of which are innocent conditions. If a small child messes up, they need educating, not punishing. 

At some point, a person becomes capable of malice and deliberate cruelty. But what if we saw this primarily as an education problem, not a reason for punishment? I have no qualms about the idea of using short, sharp interventions to reduce the amount of harm or danger in a situation, (better you do something unpleasant than they tease the dog until it bites them, for example) but on the whole, what is punishing a child really about?

Are we punishing them for not having understood why something was important? Should it be their responsibility if they haven’t grasped why something matters?

Punishment has more to do with asserting authority and teaching obedience than it has to do with helping a person learn, grow and do better. Children will tend to respond to arbitrary authority either by increasing their resistance to it, or by hiding better. Punishment leads to fear and/or resentment. A child who has ‘learned’ to behave through punishment is likely to have learned about what to hide to survive, but they won’t necessarily think there’s any other value in what they’ve learned.

I think much the same is true of adults. Punishment does not discourage people from committing crime. Education and opportunity are far more effective on this score. If people don’t understand their rights and responsibilities, locking them up won’t fix that. Punishment doesn’t restore anything to the victim, either. It doesn’t actually achieve much for anyone and it has a high financial and social cost. What punishment does allow, be that at home or in a society, is for some people to have power over other people. Punishment has much more to do with the assertion of power and the reinforcing of hierarchies than it does with solving problems or fixing behaviour.

Punishment teaches that the person with the most power in a situation can dish out punishment on their own terms. The person with the least power is the person it will be easiest to punish. The rich and powerful are often very good at avoiding punishment, while any crime punishable by a fine was only ever intended to hurt poor people. What punishment leads to is the understanding that having power is more important than being right, or good. This does nothing to tackle crimes motivated by desperation. It also fuels the kind of crime that is driven by the desire to have power over others.


Rioting, prisons and justice

In the aftermath of the UK riots, we’re hearing that about three quarters of the arrested rioters and looters have already been in trouble with the police before. At the moment, the solution of preference is to slap longer sentences on people. But, if these are people who have already been through the prison system, there’s little reason to think another stint inside will change their ways.

A lot comes down to how you understand justice, and what you believe prison is for. If prison exists as punishment only, then it has some function as a deterrent. All the evidence makes clear that deterrents, even extreme ones like the death penalty, flogging, cutting off body parts, do not cause crime to cease. We’ve been locking people up for a long time now, and they still go out and re-offend.

I think to understand why punishment isn’t effective as a deterrent you have to consider why people commit crimes in the first place. On one hand we may have crimes of desperation – theft and violence occurring because people feel (rightly or wrongly) that there are no other alternatives. This feeling of no alternatives will not be challenged by additional risk of punishment. Alternatively, there is an idea I first encountered through Brendan Myers talking about attitudes amongst native Canadians. Crime can be perceived as a breakdown of relationship. Thus the criminal may feel that there are entitled to use and abuse – a might is right attitude for example would lead to this. They may consider themselves superior to others so that they imagine the normal rules are not, or should not be applied to them. They may consider their victims to be inferior, inhuman, irrelevant such that the crime against them does not matter or is justified. This would be true of all hate crime. All of these reasons go with a mindset that will not expect to be caught, and if caught, will not expect to be seriously punished, and if punished, will not necessarily give up the beliefs that underpin the criminal behaviour.

If people commit crime through desperation, social isolation, hopelessness, anger or poverty, punishment won’t fix that. If people do it because they have no respect for anything, locking them up will just reinforce their ideas. And on the other side, putting someone in prison gives nothing back to the victims, there is no redressing of wrongs.

I’m a big believer in getting offenders who have committed smaller offences to do community work that will help them re-engage. This is part of my Druidry, in which justice is a very important idea. Not just any old job that occurs to the powers that be either, but something that will affect them. Cleaning up their own mess, repairing the damage they have caused where possible. I’m also hugely in favour, where appropriate, of sitting offenders down with  their victims and making them face those people as people. That can be tremendously healing for the victim as well.

There are people who are so sick and antisocial in their behaviour that, for everyone else’s safety, they need taking off the streets. Locking them up for a few months or years and then sending them back out won’t fix anything longer term. Prison has to be about re-education. Many prisoners have already fallen through the cracks and have major literacy and maths issues (I know, I have friends who teach in prisons). Many have mental health issues, drug addictions and other problems that need fixing if they are to escape from crime. There is also the issue of violence as learned behaviour. In Strathclyde, I gather, police are tackling violent crime as though it was a contagious disease, taking the stance that people who are normalised to it are more likely to perpetrate it. This makes a lot of sense to me. It means not only tackling gang violence on the streets, but looking at where our young humans learn that bullying pays, violence is fine and he who shouts the loudest and punches the hardest gets to rule the roost. And where do they learn this? At home, all too often.

Domestic abuse is widespread. Children who grow up exposed to not just violence, but disrespect, verbal abuse, emotional, and psychological abuse learn to abuse, and to accept certain kinds of behaviours as normal in their peers and future partners as well. I’m not saying ‘blame the parents’ here either, because abusers do not exist in a vacuum, they exist in the context of cultures and histories, attitudes to women, belief about might and right, and the pernicious belief that if you can claim provocation, violence is ok.

If we want justice, and if we want to tackle criminal behaviour, then locking up offenders is not going to get us either. It is not a solution, just a reaction. It doesn’t prevent crime. If we want to not have rioting and looting, if we want to not have violent gang cultures, then we need to start by looking at the context in which these things happen. I feel very strongly that we need to start paying serious attention to both the direct, and the knock on effects of domestic abuse. Violence begins in the home, all too frequently. If we want to deal with it, we have to figure out how to tackle it there as well.