Criminals. It’s one of the most derogatory terms in the language. Yet some enlightened folks have come to realize that the solution to petty crime isn’t to lock the offender up in an institution teeming with far worse criminals. Then again, no one wants to be seen as “soft on crime.” So there are 50 million Americans with arrest records. The US has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world.
You really can’t lump them all together. Traditionally lawmakers have thus opted for a hierarchy that goes something like this: Really vile murders, garden variety murder, kidnapping, forcible rape, armed robbery, burglary, shoplifting, vandalism, so-called victimless crimes like prostitution and drug possession and lastly, white-collar theft of millions of dollars from innocent old ladies. Sentences ranging from death to community service reflect this view.
I’m not sure this is the right approach going forward. I think we need to start looking more at motive. People commit crimes for a plethora of reasons, some arguably more heinous than others. Here are the biggies: Desperation/necessity i.e. robbing a store to feed your family, perversions like attraction to children, on a lark i.e. joyriding, being committed to a bogus cause like the 9/11 hijackers, a desire to become richer despite already having more money than they could ever hope to spend as with those Enron and WorldCom execs, drug or alcohol addiction and most inexplicable of all in my opinion, for no discernable reason at all. The latter set would include hackers who unleash viruses and worms for fun, vandals, graffiti artists and serial killers.
Here’s how I’d rank them, strictly on a motive criteria: The worst punishment should go to those who can offer no logical explanation for their heinous actions. Like those guys you hear about who kill somebody in some silly dispute where they felt they were being disrespected in some way: "Dude was gettin' on my nerves so I capped him." We’ve got enough to worry about without having to deal with such totally random threats. Pure larks (minor offenses only) should be treated more leniently unless the perpetrator is old enough to know better. As should people who commit crimes of financial necessity. I also think you need to grudgingly give credit where it’s due for people who show the courage of their convictions, no matter how misguided or demented. And I believe we should really lower the boom on those who are already rich and just desire to exploit others to get richer. Kenneth Lay should be disembowled.
What’s more, I think we need to do away with insanity defenses and the requirement that a defendant be competent to stand trial. This way we won’t have authorities force-feeding psychotropic meds to the Paul Westons of the world in order to make them understand that they could die for their offenses.
Aside from far left wing secularists and those equally naive anarchists who plague the WTO, everyone agrees that society has a duty to make moral judgments about the relative repugnancy of various conducts. But there are always pitfalls when it comes to meting out justice. States pass three strikes and you’re out laws and harmless folks wind up imprisoned for life. Do you equate Mohammed Atta’s crimes with those of Timothy McVeigh? Atta, while a despicable excuse for a subhuman being, acted from a fervent belief in his religion. McVeigh acted from some vague dislike of the government or something.
Then there’s the thorny matter of remorse. Few cared about McVeigh’s execution in part because he remained fiercely unrepentant to the bitter end. Yet much hue and cry was heard when George W. Bush took out a demure, born-again Christian woman down in Texas. Sure, she slashed somebody’s throat but she is contrite. She’s found Jesus. And she’s a woman, for crying out loud! My ass. Where were those bleeding hearts when Jeb Bush whacked Aileen Wournoss over in Florida? Why no candlelight vigil for her?
The insanity plea is an interesting thing. Considering that mental illness is so mishandled anyway by our society, maybe the best thing for the violently insane is to be in a controlled environment where they'd be ensured treatment. Not the optimal treatment, of course... but better than they'd get in the outside world, as far as I can tell.
by jean at February 27, 2004 2:29 AM
For the truly insane, they probably wouldn't know the difference. I've been following the case of one such fellow, Mr. Weston. This guy is waaaaay out there, but slowly his condition is improving. He's a freaking zombie on Zoloft and other agents. Not to worry though, as soon enough he will be dead. The Feds don't take kindly to nuts shooting up the Capitol.
by anna at February 27, 2004 7:49 AM
Any heinous crime, like murder, rape, child sexual abuse, should be made punishable by death. Lower crimes, like white collar crime, deserve prison time, but not excessively.
by Joel at November 22, 2004 11:29 AM
Joel: What have we got to gain by killing people for the crimes you mentioned? It has been proven over time that the death penalty is not an effective deterrent. Generally speaking, most people that commit murder would not be in the state of mind to calmly stop and think about the legal ramifications of their intened actions.
Also, would it not be better to study serious offensers, in an attempt perhaps to discover what lead them down that path, so we can hope to prevent it happening in the future? (I mean this could be anything, from moments/type of childhoot, relationships that have changed someone etc etc). Killing people for their crimes makes us feel good in the short term, but...in all honesty, does little to reduce crime in the long term...all In my opinion only of course.
by Dan at July 12, 2005 8:34 PM