“This hurts me more than it hurts you,” said the headmaster as he reached for his cane.
“Pull your pants down boy, I need to see your cheeks glow.”
“This hurts me more than it hurts you,” says the apocryphal headmaster. But I know that that’s not true. You know that that’s not true. He probably knows himself that that’s not true. That Head was a power-crazed sadist, and probably a sexual pervert too.
What is true, is that that beating, that punishment was more about the Head than the boy. That Head was giving vent to his anger, his frustration that boys do the things that boys do.
Boys were still caned when I was at school and Miss Killworth even used a ruler on children at my primary school, but we don’t allow such beatings in schools now.
I’ve been thinking about the role of punishment generally. At one time it would have been unthinkable to ban corporal punishment from our schools, but it seems that we have now outgrown the need to beat our young children. Is it time to reconsider the role of punishment generally in the criminal justice system?
What is the point of punishment?
Who is it for?
Who is it meant to help? Or is it not meant to help anyone, but only to harm?
There is clearly much wrong with our criminal justice system in the UK. We have the highest prison population per capita in Western Europe (equal with Spain) and the number is rising steadily.
Our prisons are out of control; both staff and inmates say so. And the statistics back them up. Suicides and self harm, sexual assaults, homicides and fires are all becoming more common in our prisons.
What is more, this increased us of prison prison is clearly not working: 46% of adults released from prison are reconvicted within one year.
So I ask again:
What is the point of punishment?
Who is it for?
Who is it meant to help, or is it not meant to help anyone, but only to harm?
If the beating administered by the teachers of yore was more about them than the boy and his misdemeanour perhaps the same is true of other punishments administered today. We hear plenty of people, perhaps whipped up by the tabloid press, describing the perpetrators of crime as ‘scum’ and suggesting that we should ‘lock them up and throw away the key’. In that context it is easy to consider that punishments administered may be more about the anger of the public than about an attempt to address the crime or the criminal.
I can understand the headmaster being angry with a boy who has repeatedly failed to follow instructions, or repeatedly broken school rules, even if there is much about the headmaster’s behaviour that I find difficult to understand.
I can understand the judge being cross with a felon who comes before him for the tenth time.
I can understand legislators feeling that they need to respond to public anger about crime and criminals.
I am not a JP or an MP, I am a GP and I can feel frustrated when someone comes back yet again with a chest infection and admits that they still smoke thirty cigarettes a day. But anger should play no part in the professional doing his or her job. My job is to try to help the patient over the present illness and encourage and support them in behaviour changes that will minimise the risk of future harm to themselves and to others. I would go further and say that a response that includes anger is most unlikely to achieve the desired outcome. No doctor cures a disease by being angry with it. No engineer solves a difficult problem of aeroplane or bridge design by being angry with it.
So I suggest that we are asking the wrong questions. Instead of addressing our own anger and the punishment that we would like to inflict, we should be addressing the crime, the perpetrator and those who suffer from crime.
Our response to a crime should attempt to:
1) enable the perpetrator to understand the damage and suffering that they have caused
2) make reparation to those who suffered from that crime.
3) do whatever can be done to reduce the risk of a similar crime being done either by the same or other people.
The first two of these are very much the core thrust of Restorative Justice and the principles of this are well described elsewhere. The principles of Restorative Justice have been applied at least in part in the youth courts in the UK with some success. Anyone wanting to look further into the application of Restorative Justice would do well to look at experience in Canada.
The third objective requires some understanding of the causes of crime. We have a great deal of knowledge around this subject, but seem to lack the will to apply it.
Mental Health Problems
It is said that 90% of prisoners have one or more mental health problem (Bradley 2009)
Many major mental health problems are more common among prisoners than in the general population.
In a report published this year the prisons and probation ombudsman points out that when mental health problems cause a prisoner to present challenging behaviour it is often met with a punitive rather than a therapeutic response and this only makes things worse.
Some of these mental health problems may not have been apparent prior to the offending behaviour but many of these prisoners had had treatment for mental health symptoms or even admitted to a psychiatric hospital before they offended.
Most of these mental health problems are treatable. We should treat them.
The Department of Health estimates that 2% of the general population have learning disabilities. Estimates coming the prison population vary widely, with some suggesting figures as high as 85%. One authoritative study puts the figure at 32% (No One Knows Prison Reform Trust).
Many symptoms associated with learning disabilities are treatable, almost all can be helped. We should treat them.
Almost half the prison population have literacy and numeracy levels less than that expected of an 11 year old. Among these are high levels of dyslexia.
Illiteracy and dyslexia are treatable. We should treat them. (Prison Reform Trust: see above.)
There are complex interactions between homelessness and crime, but it is clear that sending someone to prison increases the risk of their become homeless and that discharged prisoners who are homeless are much more likely to re-offend. (Better together: Homeless Link and Ministry of Justice)
Homelessness is treatable. We should treat it.
Other know factors that tend to increase the incidence of crime include poverty and inequality. Inequality is also specifically linked to violent crime.
Poverty is treatable. We should treat it.
Inequality is treatable. It is not inevitable. If we have a will to deal with it then we can do something about it.
There are, then a host of ways that we can take action to reduce or prevent crime. There are also, of course, factors that we do not yet understand. We need to study further, and we need the help of both the perpetrators of crime and skilled professionals in this exercise.
Some of the things we may expect of the perpetrator of a crime under this sort of scheme might be difficult or unpleasant for them such as, paying money to the victim, giving up time to do unpaid work, or even in exceptional circumstances loss of liberty. As such, there will be an element of punishment, but I would argue that the punishment should be a side-effect of the treatment or management plan, and not the objective.
In the light of what we know and what we do not yet know I would suggest that punishment plays no useful function. Perhaps it is time for civilised societies to abandon punishment and apply the principles of public health and preventive medicine to the issues of crime and justice.
I fully expect to be ‘shot down in flames’ by readers. Any comments from readers are welcome, critical or supportive, and so long as they are not too offensive I shall share them here.