Saturday, October 15, 2011

Crime and Punishment

Once upon a time I believed that punishing criminals was a good thing, generally the more the better. Then they'd learn and they wouldn't do that anymore, would they?

Then I grew up.

Before I get stuck into my rant, I ran for an hour today, up to the reservoir and back. Mostly nice and easy, but with some faster bits. Thinking a lot about good running form. There was hardly anyone else out on the paths, which was weird. It was beautiful out, 5 C (41 F) sunny, and hardly any wind. I wore shorts and a short sleeved shirt and it was perfect. My feet were a bit tender after. I think these shoes have a bit less sole than my old ones.

Now for your irregularly schedule rant.

I started reading more about our justice system, and the many failures attached to it. I started reading more about corruption in the police and legal professions. I was on a jury once for a trial involving firearms offenses and what a gong show the prosecution case was. I started reading more about what actually happens in jail, and after one gets out. I began to realize how expensive it was to keep people in jail. After many years, I began to get a better sense of human nature.

Now, this is not going to be a rant that talks a lot about the dollar values attached to various options. Those numbers can be hard to find, especially when the current government is not releasing them, last time I looked. This is going to be more a rant about right and wrong, and the various failings of imperfect human beings.

Lets start with the big one. Capital punishment is wrong. Wrong wrong wrong. Why? The fundamental principle of our law is that a person is innocent until proven guilty. There are numerous safeguards in our criminal justice system because the history books are full of examples of people highly placed in government abusing their powers at the expense of the average citizen.

We make the prosecution go through hoops to prevent the punishment of innocent people. We make them go back and touch second base just to be sure that they can actually prove a particular point. Without that, it becomes too easy for the prosecution arm of the government to pick a likely victim and say they did the dirty deed. All too often the victim is from a visible minority group, or holds unpopular political views, or simply happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Even with these hoops, hoops that the unwashed say protect the criminals, there are several examples in Canadian jurisprudence of the police manufacturing evidence, the prosecution hiding or stonewalling on evidence favourable to the defendant, and the justice system dragging it's feet on recognizing DNA evidence. The names Steven Truscott, Donald Marshall, Guy Paul Morin, David Milgaard, Thomas Sophonow, Ronald Dalton, Greg Parsons, and Randy Druken are proof of that.

There are many people that say we coddle the criminals and abuse the victims. I say, the first problem is to understand who the actual criminal is. Eye witness accounts are notoriously inaccurate. Police lie and fabricate or hide evidence. The legal profession seems to like to take the easy say out. Many people say it's too hard to convict criminals, and I say that's just fine. It SHOULD be hard to convict criminals. People shouldn't be going to jail and ruining their lives, and the lives of their families because people are too lazy to do their jobs.

If we don't know, or can't prove it, then we shouldn't be convicting. I like the Scottish verdict, "Not Proven". Essentially, the judge or jury is unconvinced that the suspect is innocent, but has insufficient evidence to the contrary. This verdict is sometimes referred to as "not guilty and don't do it again".

Jail is a horrible thing to do to someone. The loss of freedom is just the beginning. There is the violence from gangs, rape, drug addition (and if we can't keep drugs out of jail how on earth are we ever going to keep them off the street?) and perhaps worst of all, diseases like TB and polio are coming back in prison. Those will have a huge impact on our health care system. Then there is the post jail stigma. Who wants to hire a con? Nobody. If they can't get a job it becomes really easy to understand why they return to crime.

Given the horrible outcomes involved, not just for the people involved, but for society at large, it makes sense to try to prevent people from turning to crime in the first place. Trying to prevent the injuries caused by the criminal justice system is the right thing to do. That fact that almost everything is cheaper than putting someone in jail is almost beside the point.

So, how do we keep someone from a "Life of Crime?"

I want to take a little bit of a diversion first. Bear with me. I'm not going all religious mumbo-jumbo on you when I talk about a soul. I mean the part of us that knows right from wrong, recognizes that other people are people too, and that some actions cause anguish for other people. There are some people who apparently don't have one. I'm not sure if they were born without one, or they somehow lost it. In either case, these people are gravely ill, and are a mortal danger to the rest of us. They need to be recognized young, and will need special care. In what follows, I'm not talking about this group of people. I'm talking about regular folks that just happen to be falling into the cracks (lately they are more like gaping chasms) in our society.

Science is getting better at understanding what is going on in our heads, but we have a long way to go. Our minds and brains are the most complex things that we know of. Much of what we think we know is probably wrong, or at best incomplete. All we can do is keep working on it.

But what we can do is recognize when systems like school are failing some kids. I don't mean failing in the grade sense. I mean failing in the sense that the kids aren't responding to the situation. We need to get better at teaching kids. We know much about what engages the attention of children, and how they learn. We need to support that. In some cases, we have to work a lot harder to reach some kids. Maybe they are challenged somehow, or they are not quite ready for what's coming, and need a break, or a different approach. We cannot label kids and discard them. We have to find a way to reach every single child, and help them learn to deal with our ever more complex society.

One thing we have to do is weed out the poor teachers. Out. Fired. Whatever you want to call it. Seniority be damned, they have to go. If they don't love, or at least like kids, they probably shouldn't be teaching. If they can't be professional about doing what has been demonstrated to work, regardless of their personal beliefs, they are in the wrong profession. There should be lots of ways to help them find the audience they can relate to. Maybe they need to deal with older or younger kids, or the challenged or the bright. But if after a reasonable period, and reasonable attempts to help them, if they can't made the grade (pun intended) they should be out. They don't need to be infecting kids with their shortcomings.

While I'm on about it, religious education has no place in school. Teachers can believe all they want, but try to infect the kids with it, and they should be fired. I'm still amazed the Roman Catholic Church in Canada is allowed to run a school system.

I would stop lumping kids together by ages, and feeding them a formula of courses culminating with a standardized test. Kids learn at different rates at different ages. We have got to be smarter about education time. Here's a link to the Kahn Academy. He's got some great ideas about using video to help kids learn. Whatever it takes, we've got to do it.

Adults too. We've got to be smarter about education standards, and understanding what knowledge a person really has. It is a complete waste to have an engineer or a doctor with foreign credentials driving a cab. We should be putting those people through some form of customized  course work to ensure they meet Canadian standards, without making them take all the courses all over again. It is madness that a teacher in one province has to go through major hoops to become certified in another.

That leads to my next point. Employment. Paid employment. Pay that lets one raise a family. A society that is unequal enough to let people take risks and reap rewards for doing so, but not so unequal that the financial classes gain mega-wealth by manipulating the system against everybody else. Henry Ford made history when he paid his assembly line workers more than he had to, because he recognized they were the perfect market for buying those cars, and spreading the word.

Money works better when everyone has some. It works better when it stays local, circulating between people and businesses. People need the understanding that work will be compensated fairly regardless of the status of the job.

Lately it seems that so called blue collar work isn't respected. You call a plumber when needed, but you don't want your kid to go to trade school. One of the reasons plumbers are so well paid now is that there aren't a lot of them.

There is no such thing as a criminal type, at least I don't think so. I am not making the argument that if we had more blue collar or trades jobs for people, there would be fewer criminals. Conrad Black is the refutation of that argument.

But I do think that if it is more possible to find and keep reasonably well paid employment, we will reduce the number of people driven to crime out of economic necessity. There is a huge change needed in our working society though. Jobs have status. Some more than others. Less status usually means less pay. Often these lower status jobs are harder work, sometimes manual, sometimes menial. None the less, they need to be done, and the person doing them is worthy of respect.

Which leads me to a digression. Two digressions. One of the best ways to decide if you want to hire someone, is take them to lunch, and see how they behave towards the wait staff. Your potential hire might be kissing your ass, but if he or she is a jerk to the wait staff, they are jerk, period. Easy hiring decision.

Another digression. Part of the effort in educating the young has to be the recognition of people prone to addictions, and preventing it. The so called war on drugs has been a failure, unless you're a cop or a drug supplier. We need to keep people from becoming addicted, not just to illegal drugs, but tobacco, alcohol, and prescription medications. I confess to some uneasiness about this. Imagine for a moment we had a genetic test that could with 100% accuracy identify someone who would become an alcoholic with their first drink. We're nearly there. What do we do to prevent that person from drinking, and yet allow them the freedom to make their own choices?

So what do I have so far? Better education that is geared towards a person's particular strengths and weaknesses. Hopefully that would lead to training that lets people understand what they are good at, and what they would enjoy doing. That might be advanced education to become a scientist, or vocational to become a plumber, or any other specific education for specific fields.

In the past one of the things that was done to young males that nowadays seem to be most likely involved in criminal activities, was to send them off to a war out in the boonies. That was a good outlet for hormonal urges. But Iraq, Afghanistan, parts of Africa, and a few other local hot spots aside, there aren't many wars going on anymore. In fact, this is one of the more peaceful times in human history. Peaceful in the sense of few wars going on, and peaceful in the sense that crime rates are low and falling. Most of us don't need to particularly worry about street violence from criminals. We are more likely to face economic violence from white collar criminals and abusive government.

So as a replacement, I suggest we put people in an organization like the army, but one dedicated to public works. We provide food and housing, and a modest salary. They do stuff like hump sandbags during floods, clean up after natural disasters, help maintain public assets like buildings, parks, rivers, various infrastructure, and generally supplement volunteer labour when it's needed. It might be picking up garbage, or shoveling snow for seniors, or planting trees, or being the actual army reserve, or helping to clean up industrial messes. It could be anywhere in Canada, and maybe even overseas to aid after earthquakes. There are no shortage of groups looking for volunteers, and if the work is benefitting Canada as a whole, maybe these people should be provided as a labour source. The idea is to keep them active, and give them some structure.

Some might call this work for welfare, but I tend to think of it more as an advanced education in real life. They will pick up social interaction skills, organizational and project management skills, and may just find out what they want to do with their lives.

I take the position that crime is a wake up call. What's been done so far hasn't worked. So we provide whatever is needed to figure out what needs to happen. Maybe they need to be supervised 24-7, either via a GPS monitor, or by a group of the public service group.

Clearly, removing criminals from society and immersing them in a jail culture does not work, so lets stop doing that. Much like the Insite harm reduction clinic in Vancouver decided to try something different, lets immerse people in society. Rather than a few dozen or hundred hours of volunteer service, maybe it should be thousands of hours. Lets try different programs to help the criminal and document it so we know what works or doesn't work.

Canada is a country with small population. We need as many productive people as possible. Losing people needlessly to jail, or disease, or crime, or anything else is a waste. Finding out how to help people be healthy and happy in society is essential. It would be wonderful to have us all be productive, but I'll settle for avoiding destructive behaviors.

1 comment:

  1. Good rant! I do agree that jails don't seem to be working.

    I don't agree with the opinion of religion in schools. If someone doesn't want to send their children to Catholic school then Public school is an option available to them.


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