In all three of my novels, I weave organized crime into the plots. Organized crime adds some suspense and excitement to the stories, but I can also demonstrate some of the factors that lead people into a life of crime. It also gives me lots of time to think about crime and punishment. Lately, I’ve been focusing on our society’s growing fascination and preoccupation with harsher penalties and sentences related to criminal activity.
Social conservatives seek laws that demand a minimum sentence for certain crimes. Media outlets often recite a range of punishment possible almost immediately after a suspect is apprehended and usually long before any trial or conviction. Politicians often scream “injustice!” when someone convicted of a violent crime is released into society or even transitioned into a different monitoring or adaptation program.
Why? Statistics have long established that very few people actually plan to become criminals. Of course, the very few who become mass murderers or terrorists are the exception. But studies find most violent crimes are acts of passion – often with a single event that escalates into criminal behavior. Studies also established many years ago that punishment is seldom an effective deterrent despite advocates using this argument to justify longer prison terms and confinement that is barely above subsistence.
Yet prisons in North America are overcrowded, and governments devote more tax dollars to build new facilities to hold more people. In the USA, prison confinement has actually become a business with an estimated 18% of all people convicted of federal crimes held in privately owned prisons. Canadian politicians have also openly mused about converting some prisons to “for-profit” facilities.
In all three of my stories, I help readers better understand some of the factors that motivate characters to adopt a lifestyle most would consider criminal. Most of my examples show how family, neighborhoods, education, peer pressure, and economic circumstance often lead to a life of crime. As with real criminals, fear of punishment has little to do with their eventual criminal activities.
Why, then, do we focus so intently on punishment? Of course, we all recoil in horror when we hear of heinous murders, violent attacks, rapes, or other events that are abhorrent to almost everyone. But, too often we also immediately default to comments like “I hope they kill the perpetrator” or “I hope he rots in jail.” Instinctively, we seem to directly jump to the punishment without care or concern about factors that perhaps led to the violent incident.
Compare our punishment driven mindset towards crime with the approach in Germany. I lived and worked in Dusseldorf for almost seven years at the turn of the century and was continually amazed at the low level of crime – particularly violent crime – compared with Canada. I learned that German authorities don’t focus primarily on punishment, nor do the German people. Rather than worrying about how many prison years are meted out as punishment, people and authorities focus on what is being done to prepare a convict for his or her re-entry to society to avoid that person re-offending if at all possible.
A head of the German penitentiary system once told the media he saw his primary role - from the day a convict arrives at a prison facility - as developing and executing a plan tailored to each individual. His goal is to be sure each convict is not only ready to re-enter society when their sentence end but is also unlikely to re-offend.
Which view do you think is more likely to reduce crimes and lower the terrible costs of crime to our society? As certain politicians focus on budgets and expenses, are they taking care to put in place programs and expenditures necessary to create a safer community with lower rates of crime? As we focus on punishment and exacting “some sense of justice" for victims or their families, are we increasing the probability of more violent crimes with higher costs to our society?
These are questions I think about as I write my novels, and they’re issues I hope you'll consider as you read them!
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