Friday, June 12, 2009

Protection from Crime

Crime is the best example of how conservatives have highlighted and often manipulated fear around protection issues. Aside from attacking liberals for wanting taxes (playing into people's fear of falling into poverty), their biggest claim is that liberals are 'soft on crime'. I think that many progressives and even radicals are uncertain where to go with this issue.

Crime is first of all a social problem. The root causes are complex and there isn't a single, simple solution. A lot of this lies in a society that values money and property over connections between people. In a sense, the conservatives are correct that there are moral issues behind this. That doesn't, however, deal with the issue of how to prevent crime and how to respond to crimes when they are committed.

From a social point of view, I suspect that education, connection, and better access to resources would do a lot to prevent crime, but at this point I think we need to look to ourselves. A first thing to do is to develop some sense of street smarts. The National Crime Prevention Council has an information sheet on basic street smarts that begins with: "Wherever you are - on the street, in an office building or shopping mall, driving, waiting for a bus or subway - stay alert and tuned in to your surroundings. Send the message that you're calm, confident, and know where you're going. Trust your instincts. If something or someone makes you uneasy, avoid the person or leave. Know the neighborhoods where you live and work. Check out the locations of police and fire stations, public telephones, hospitals, and restaurants, or stores that are open late." As far as I'm concerned, this is all good practice.

If you are confronted with someone who wants money from you, give it to them. Some people who have resisted robbery have succeeded, but many others have ended up injured or dead. (I also think that not having much money and stuff and not being attached to what we have is useful for a lot of reasons, but this is one.) Having a caring attitude toward those who attack you is difficult but at least will make you feel better and may even improve the situation. (See my post of 8/11/08 for Frances Moore Lappé's story of the African clergyman who not only forgave those trying to attack him but tried to give them his possessions.)

Recently, President Obama said that a quality he was looking for in a supreme court justice was 'empathy'. Empathy is something I admire but conservatives hit the roof. From their point of view, empathy is the last thing they want to see in a judge. Why? Because they fear that an empathic judge would side with the criminal rather than the victim. They want to see the criminal punished and the victim receive justice.

I want to see the victim receive justice as well--but I'm not sure that punishment is the way to do it. Here is some of what I found after searching the internet:

Behaviorists have long pointed out that while punishment works, to some degree, positive reinforcement works better, and punishment often results in responses such as anger and resentment. Because of this, it can actually provoke increased aggression. Not exactly the response we are looking for.

There is lots of research to indicate 'deterrence' (the threat of punishment) doesn't work--there was a study that showed 83% of men convicted of bank robbery and street mugging didn't believe they would be caught. Another study showed 63% of those with felony convictions returning after being released from prison. In fact, lots of research studies show that imprisonment actually increases the likelihood of increased tendencies toward criminal behavior. While rounding up and imprisoning anyone caught committing a crime often stops a crime wave temporarily, when they are released there is often a rebound crime wave. (We are seeing this in Boston now.) Unless we are willing to lock up people indefinitely, there has to be another way.

Research supports the idea the most effective way to cut this circle is education. In a study, 35% of people on probation that had literacy training were rearrested whereas 46% without such training were rearrested. Further, those who got the equivalent of a high school diploma only had a rearrest rate of 24%. Inmates who got college degrees had a 10-15% rearrest rate (depending on the study) and in at least one study no one who got a master's degree returned to prison.

Other types of rehabilitation programs also work, if they teach problem-solving skills, help build interpersonal relationships and empathy, teach respect, provide models of ordinary folks who do well without turning to crime, build connections with community resources, and offer ongoing support services. Some conservatives point to a paper from the seventies that looked at all the research studies at that point to date and couldn't reach a conclusion on whether rehabilitation worked. The conservatives interpreted that to mean 'nothing works'. Further research has shown that the problem is that not all rehabilitation programs work. The ones that work have most, if not all, of the components indicated above.

One way of dealing with both offenders and victims is what is called Victim Offender Reconciliation Programs. These provide an opportunity for people who are victims of crimes to face those who wronged them. This is part of a broader model known as restorative justice which is quite different from our present 'justice' system. The Wikipedia article on restorative justice highlights the differences: "Our present system of justice asks, '1. What laws have been broken?, 2. Who did it?, 3. What do they deserve?', whereas restorative justice asks, '1. Who has been hurt?, 2. What are their needs?, 3. Whose obligations are these?'"

Finally, I believe that forgiveness is an important part of healing the pain of a crime. (See my post of 8/7/08 for some good examples.)

We need to deal with crime in order for people to feel safe, but I think we need to find new ways of dealing with crime.

Michelle Maiese, "Restorative Justice"--A good introduction to the concepts of restorative justice.
Murder Victims' Families For Human Rights--Opposition to the death penalty from the group hardest to argue with.
Street Smarts--The clearest version of the list I could find, courtesy of the Elk Grove, CA, Police Department. They don't list the source, but the identical list on another site says: "source: National Crime Prevention Counil" (sic)
VORP--A page full of information on Victim Offender Reconciliation Programs and restorative justice with links to even more information

Quote of the day: "Crime is naught but misdirected energy. So long as every institution of today, economic, political, social, and moral, conspires to misdirect human energy into wrong channels; so long as most people are out of place doing the things they hate to do, living a life they loathe to live, crime will be inevitable, and all the laws on the statutes can only increase, but never do away with, crime." - Emma Goldman

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