Prison Philosophy: Beyond Coddling and Punishment

Prison Philosophy: Beyond Coddling and Punishment

The documentary “Breaking the Cycle” from Finnish state television does a good job exploring the differences between the American “punishment” methodology and the Nordic “humane” approach to prisoners. Much has been said elsewhere about the drawbacks of the hard-line punishment approach to incarceration. Obviously, the high rate of re-incarceration, the violence and abuse at such prisons are major arguments that can be used to support a more “liberal” approach to the prison system. The “humane” prisons found in the Nordic countries are sometimes described as luxury resorts. In their defence the significantly lowered rate of re-offense is always brought up. If your yardstick for measuring efficacy is the rate of reincarceration, then the liberal approach is demonstrably superior. It does however fail to provide a sense of justice to aggrieved victims, who feel that the offender is coddled. In my view, both systems fail to provide true justice.

First of all, we must make the distinction between crime with a victim and victimless or “vice” crime. I don’t believe that the government should have sanctions against voluntary behavior. The negative consequences from drug use, gambling, prostitution and the like should fall to the individual engaging in such pursuits. Similarly, society at large and me as a taxpayer shouldn’t be forced to pay for the inevitable drawbacks from short-sighted behavior. Society would greatly benefit from shifting our view of what constitutes a crime away from crimes without a victim to violence, coercion and fraud. Then only the truly deserving would face penalties from the justice system. Waiting times to face trial would be greatly reduced or disappear altogether. Over here in the Nordic countries some convicts face a waiting list to serve time behind bars, the prisons are full. Such affronts to our collective sense of justice could effectively be combatted by reducing the number of convicted criminals through the decriminalisation of vices.

No matter whether you support punishing offenders or pursuing a low re-offender rate through humane incarceration, both systems neglects the key aspect of justice, namely the victim. I am a huge proponent of restorative justice. To me justice is restoring a victim to a better position than he/she was in before the crime. The psychological impact, time lost due to partaking in the investigation, trial and so on all necessitate restitution that goes beyond the damages caused. We also have to consider the necessity of deterrence. The justice system should focus on the victim, not the offender. Prisons and the like should be the consequence if the victim and perpetrator couldn’t come to an agreement as to how the offender could make the victim whole again.

The goal of incarceration should be to make as much money as possible to pay to the victim. Perhaps some victims would prefer the offender to have to commit acts of service instead, this would also be acceptable. Prison would then only exist to make sure the criminal didn’t abandon his obligation towards the victim by fleeing. The prisoner could choose the level of his “lodgings” by paying out of pocket for more preferable conditions. Correctional institutions should be designed to allow the convicts to maximize their earning potential. As an example, investment bankers should have access to the internet, telephones and other tools of their trade. If they are successful, they will restore their victims more quickly. This incentive is key to achieving good performances.

Thus, we have a picture or a vision of a future justice system based on restorative justice. By focusing on removing the consequences of crime to the degree that this is possible, we avoid the contentious debate about prison conditions altogether.

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