Law and Order – the Irony of Deterrents, Part 2

 

I’ve just re-read my first post by that name, and I couldn’t help but notice that it’s terrible. So this isn’t going to be so much ‘Part 2’ as version 2.0. Steven Pinker keeps Tweeting about how writers need to remember that they’re the ones talking, and that we should lay it all out and not hope that our readers already know everything we’re trying to say – and boy, he could have talking to me alone. So with that in mind I’ll try this again.

 

  1. The Damages of Punishments.

 

There is a terrible irony that happens when we attempt to solve society’s ills through punishment. The science is in regarding abuse, and also regarding corporal punishment: these things are causing many of our ills.

Crime, high-risk behaviour and self-harm, addiction, depression, cognitive impairment and poor grades in school, all these and more have been shown through study after reputable study to be higher frequency issues for those who are documented to have suffered abuse and/or corporal punishment in their lives.

Let’s also admit right here the truth obscured by a ubiquitous fallacy: all serious punishments are corporal punishments. We don’t volunteer for our punishments, and when we choose to take them, it’s because they are going to be forced upon us physically if we don’t. Punishments are not optional, and force is “corporal,” ultimately. This means that the list of negative outcomes above is the result of punishments, no qualifier like “corporal” is necessary, and in fact, any qualifier is detrimental to the truth. There is no type of punishment that doesn’t ever cause damage, because there is no type of punishment that isn’t intended to. That’s the whole idea, isn’t it?

We harm so that the person we are punishing changes their behaviour in order to avoid the harm. If it doesn’t harm, it’s not a punishment, by definition. In the best cases, the prospect of the harm is enough and bad behaviour is avoided before it occurs – but we’re not addressing deterrents just yet.

That list of negative outcomes above – oh, let’s repeat it: crime, high-risk behaviour and self-harm, addiction, depression, cognitive impairment and poor grades in school – not a complete list, of course, that suite of damages has been shown, statistically to be more common in people who have suffered abuse and corporal punishment, that is to say, these effects are caused by abuse and corporal punishment.

Let’s stop there for a moment, and ask, what else causes these things? Certainly medical conditions like Foetal Alcohol Syndrome and any number of brain mis-developments or diseases add their effects. I won’t argue, it may be impossible to separate FAS from other factors in an abusive and punishing population, but surely we see these outcomes in many people who are known to have no serious medical causative factors or syndromes associated with parents’ substance abuse. Of course there are serious traumas, war and natural disasters, heinous crimes, no denying that, but these aren’t likely to be an explanation for most of the people suffering these negative outcomes either. Genetic predisposition perhaps, perhaps Original Sin or its evolutionist cousin, our animal natures?

As to genetics, I expect the science is coming, the statistics may show something in the coming years; I’ll wait for the studies. As for Original Sin, I won’t hold my breath. Those statistics aren’t coming, ever.

What I’m getting at here, though I won’t presume to put a percentage on it, or even to say it’s the majority (even if I suspect it is), is that abuse and punishment are a major cause of the long list of personal damages that so many of us suffer from and that the more punished and abused of us tend to suffer from more, in proportion. Statistically.

And now to deterrents.

 

  1. Deterrents – the Calculated Risk.

 

Simply defined, a deterrent is the designation of a punishment intended to turn us from crime or misbehaviour; a punishment administered after the misdeed is intended to teach a lesson the hard way, while one that stops the behaviour before it starts is referred to as a deterrent. The threat or promise of a punishment, we hope, will avert the bad behaviour before it happens.

For a deterrent to be effective, at least one of several things must happen. A deterrent forces the subject to make a cost benefit analysis, so first, the cost must be more than we want to pay, that is the cost – the punishment – must outweigh the benefit of the crime in order to deter it. Second, the cost must be certain enough to force the analysis – meaning the punishment doesn’t matter if we don’t think we’re going to get caught, if we think we’ll never have to pay. If it were only the first condition that mattered, things would be simple – we would only have to insure costly punishments and deterrents would work. That’s not the case though; there is almost always some variable chance of never having to pay, and so deterrents are a gamble.

Depending on our perception of our chances of being caught, the strength of a deterrent is increased when the cost is increased, that is, when the punishment offered gets more severe. For the second condition, as the certainty of being caught increases, so too does the power of the deterrent. So this is the question for a person contemplating a crime, or a child considering being “bad:” what is the penalty, and will I be caught? If the penalty is painful, and the odds of getting away with it are low, and the person is not otherwise compelled to ignore the risk (a third condition, that external circumstances do not make the likelihood or severity of the penalty irrelevant), the deterrent will work. Again, this is the analysis from the criminal’s, or the naughty child’s point of view.

But we, caregivers, we, society, we have an analysis to make too, regarding costs and benefits.

 

  1. The Bets We Make – Un-calculated Risk.

 

When all goes well, when the conditions are right and the deterrent works, then that’s great. All well and good, or close enough, anyway. Let’s just say that if deterrents worked all the time, I wouldn’t be complaining. Of course they don’t, so the complaining will continue. If they did, we wouldn’t all have been spanked and grounded as children and the prison industry wouldn’t be such a growth sector.

It’s when the deterrent fails that’s the problem.

When either the punishment offered isn’t scary enough, certain enough, or when there is something scarier that will happen if we don’t commit the crime and the deterrent doesn’t work, then we have another choice: punish or let it pass. Of course, any parent or anybody else will be quick to tell us we can’t just let it pass. That would be the end of deterrents instantly. So when the deterrent fails, we punish. For what happens when we punish, I’ll refer you back to Section 1: higher incidences of crime, high-risk behaviour and self-harm, addiction, depression, cognitive impairment and poor grades in school, etc.

So this is the gamble, the bet we make. We designate a punishment, hoping for the deterrent effect, and all too often wind up punishing instead, causing the aforementioned damages to our criminals, and to our kids. When we lose this bet, we instantly transition from being the good folks who would make the world a better place by stopping bad behaviour to becoming the cause of so many of the world’s ills instead. Of course this is a multigenerational gamble. “Our kids” means us. This is the gamble, but make no mistake, no-one wins the game. This is one that we lose often enough that the wins are nearly meaningless, because the damages that come with losing aren’t balanced out by the mere absence of trauma that is the prize for winning.

Defined as a joke with the power to make us cry, this is irony: a logical joke, but a sad, sad reality. This is the deeply ironic fallacy of deterrents.

If we believe in our deterrents, but see crime remains, or increases, we may think the deterrents need to be stepped up, the penalties intended as deterrents worsened . . . and this only increases the damage, and doubles the horrible irony of our public policy. This is what is offered by our Law-and-Order politicians, more damage, and therefore, among other social symptoms, more crime. (I’m looking at you, Stephen Harper.) This situation is of course more heartbreaking when we do that with our parental discipline, when we increase the stakes on our children, in this game that we can only lose to a greater or lesser degree, this game where there is no winning.

I know deterring crime, deterring bad behaviour, it sounds positive. If it worked every time, if the bad behaviour was averted one hundred percent of the time, it would be – but it doesn’t. Again, I’m not going to put a number out there, I won’t even presume to say that the deterrent fails more often than not. Clearly it fails often enough; punishments are not rare, by any measure, and neither are the sorts of damages punishments have been shown to cause. I repeat: deterrents fail often enough, and damaging punishing inevitably results. There is no winning these bets, only degrees of losing. Punishing damages people, and our wish that bad behaviour can be reliably deterred is back-firing. Our chosen method to solve crime and misbehaviour is what is causing it, and not the other way around.

If this is not heartbreaking to us, we can consider that we have been desensitized to it. There is only so much horrible irony a person can take before we just switch off. It’s the system, it’s not our fault.

That doesn’t mean it’s not wrong.

 


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6 thoughts on “Law and Order – the Irony of Deterrents, Part 2

  1. Pamela Spiro Wagner October 23, 2014 / 7:12 am

    WONDERFUL! My single only humble suggestion to improve this would be to intersperse your argument, with which I so very much agree, with anecdotal examples…I think the world just reads and understands arguments like yours better with illustrations. Verbal though they may be, stories are so powerful and there could be so many that would make your points, if you can find real life equivalents. which I cannot imagine would be difficult (we all have so many from our own lives for example, that even telling stories from your own, if you would, or from those of people you know, would be instructive, but more important, of INTEREST…)

    Like

    • neighsayer October 23, 2014 / 7:40 am

      yes, that was a big disappointment for me, this post was a bunch of work and it came out dry and boring. I’ll try to do that sometime soon. You’re right, it needs illustration, and a joke or two wouldn’t hurt either. Thanks, Pam.

      Like

    • neighsayer October 25, 2014 / 7:54 pm

      Oh, I don’t think I can do that, I don’t think I can personalize it, add examples. I’ll try to write something that way going forward, but I don’t see how any of that stuff can be stuffed into this format. Sorry.

      Like

      • Pamela Spiro Wagner October 26, 2014 / 4:16 am

        Of course you should not rewrite it…that would be a huge amount of work and this is really an argument, I just remember working with a sociologist friend who was writing her third book and I suggested the impossible to her, that she include a personal story at the start…and she really resisted, saying, it simply wasn’t professional.BUt in the end she did it, and it was her most successful and most readable book of all. People gravitate towards stories and personal illustrations, that is all I am saying, whether they are actually YOURS or others it doesn’t matter. Just something to keep in mind as you write other posts…I know you can do it, and your message is SO VERY Important that I myself want people to want to read it. That is my only point. (mind you, my blog is not so well-visited either, but for other reasons…I hope! Possibly my topic and my emotionality is over the top!!!!)

        Like

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