More than one social critic has pointed out that the justice system in America should maybe be called ‘the revenge system’ instead. Whether you agree with the way the country treats criminals or not, you have to be pretty short-sighted to disagree with this assessment. We talked about how no behavior exists in a vacuum last week, in ‘Bullying a bully is still bullying’; let’s go into it a little more deeply here.
Social pressure is a strange thing. It makes for some very pretty diamonds, but it crushes a lot of perfectly good souls along the way. We can’t say we don’t know what life would be like without civilization, since modern day life exists on Earth right there alongside what we would call primitive life. Yet somehow we don’t understand what we give up when we leave that life behind completely.
No, I’m not suggesting a nomadic return to the plains or the caves.
Just hear me out.
In a small tribe, every member is expected to contribute. This leads to people that live active long lives, who give more than they take in that time. We know they don’t die at thirty of old age, even though that was a fun myth for some of us to believe for awhile; instead they live lifespans as long or longer than modern day people, but those lives contain something different than the modern life often does.
Human biology is not set up for a child to have their food handed to them for the first eighteen years of their lives. All we have to do is compare the number of tribal kids with ADD to the number of kids in supposedly polite society who have it, and that becomes clear. When kids hunt and fish and forage as soon as they are physically able to, a strange thing happens.
Actually, it’s not strange; it’s completely natural.
These teenagers aren’t angsty. Depression is virtually non-existent, even in youngsters; and suicide is not really a thought for any of them. Also, crime is a giant rarity; rather than lock someone in a cage or kill them for transgressing, most tribes exile the offending member. Those are super rare occasions, though; most tribal people never think of hurting another. It’s just not part of their programming.
So what does this have to do with rehabilitation?
Well, it turns out most criminals feel disconnected from society as a whole. Even worse, many people that turn to crime feel as though society itself is responsible for their less than ideal living situation. The last thing I’m going to do here is argue that they’re wrong or right about that; the point here is that locking them up doesn’t help as much as actual rehabilitation could.
And what’s the best rehabilitation technique?
You guessed it! These folks need to feel needed, like nearly all of us do. It’s not a giant mystery of the universe, or anything; it’s just biology! The prison system in Norway is leading the world in rehabilitating offenders, and a lot of people are starting to look to their example for ways to improve their own systems. What they have found is that they’ve been doing pretty much everything wrong.
We focus on punishment in the United States, and put that priority first. Rehabilitation automatically comes in last when you do this, though; the way you treat someone you think should be punished is a lot different than the way you treat someone you feel should be rehabilitated. It’s no secret how prison guards treat their charges in America; but few of us wonder if the prisoners act the way they do because of that treatment.
One view says these are not people deserving of rights, the other asserts that everyone makes mistakes. It doesn’t take a social scientist to figure out that people act like people when you see them as people, and behave like animals when that’s how you treat them. And we don’t need a thought experiment to see how it works…we have a country boldly going where none have considered going before, and we can see how logically this plays out in real life.
The thing is, this doesn’t just affect the people who end up in the system. Everyone in any given country is at least somewhat aware of how many laws they have to follow, how likely they are to be punished for not doing so, and how they will be treated if they are caught. We end up right back at the argument that points out that most of the people who turn to crime feel marginalized by their country in some way.
Some people think that if you make prison sentences less harsh, it will encourage criminals to break the law more often. It even sounds like it makes sense, from a certain perspective. The problem is, it also makes sense from a certain perspective to steal from a rich person just because you’re poor. These are both emotional assessments, and it turns out they’re both wrong.
When a nation’s people are not afraid of their government, crime rates drop drastically. The few countries where the people actually feel as though the politicians care about their welfare have so little crime compared to the rest of the world that it makes us all look a little primitive. In those places where a close-knit community is the center of everyone’s life, very few people feel disenfranchised or marginalized. And how likely is a person going to commit a crime when they feel like they are living a life of meaning and purpose?
Depends on what your country calls a crime, I guess.
This is where social pressure becomes a positive thing, instead of an insufferable weight that feels like it’s suffocating some people from day one. When our lives become pleasantly intertwined, they can begin to have the purpose and meaning we are biologically engineered to have. When we are treated like something less than the people making and enforcing the rules, an explosive social pressure is created instead.
But that’s not all the prison system in America has got going on. In fact, we’re barely scratching the surface here. A new industry has emerged around imprisoning people since these institutions became privatized, and the people in power have figured out a whole new way to get other people to work for nothing or next to it.
Of course, that’s a subject for another day. How about next Tuesday?
And how about we call it…
‘A slave by any other name…’
I hope you come back for it!
Thanks for reading!
All the best,