The Utopian idealists who parade folly as compassion want us to believe that everyone is good at their core. Any behavior defined as criminal is excusable because of the deficiencies of society, mental illness, poverty, or racism. In their eyes, evil only exists in prisons and among law enforcement.
Although the belief that every criminal behavior holds within it an excuse rather than a moral component of right and wrong, common sense and the ordinary experience of most humans reveals that people have choices to make and paths to take.
Every religion and philosophy has an element of recognizing right and wrong. For Bible-based religions, wrong is sin and right is righteousness. Evil is manifested in wanton violence and good is manifested in kindness to others. In Islam, what is good is what Allah has commanded and what is bad is what has been forbidden. In human interactions, good and bad are relative. In Buddhism, negative actions and thoughts such as greed, anger, and ignorance create evil that impairs enlightenment and activates Karmic consequences. Hinduism recognizes evil as a cause of suffering in ourselves and others. Those who hold no belief in the intelligent creation and design of mankind still hold that our conduct is constrained by the need to co-exist, and humanists define evil as human action that causes unnecessary suffering.
Political utopian thought is not a fringe element in American society. When legislatures reduce sentences, judges release violent offender suspects without bond, and when police must allow trespassing and shoplifting because the perpetrators can’t afford commodities or space, compassion trumps accountability.
To be sure, the discussion on the balance of compassion and consequences is a necessary one, but deconstructing the criminal justice system is not thoughtful, research-based reform, but armchair policy making by those who believe that they will suffer no consequences from wholesale forgiveness of criminal behavior. Classical criminology has served western culture well for centuries. It posits that people avoid pain and seek pleasure. People will make a free will decision to avoid things that cause pain (the probability of punishment) balanced against getting away with behavior that brings them pleasure, such as raping your daughter or stealing your Hyundai.
Famed psychologist Dr. Phil (McGraw) has a habit of saying that we teach people how to treat us. This is a truism for individual relationships – we’ll get what we put up with – but it is also true for society at large. How a person calculates the pain v. pleasure equation is partly dependent on what they observe in others who engage in criminal pleasure-seeking behavior. If everyone seems to be getting away with it or society passively puts up with it, the scales are tipped in favor of a decision to go for it.
If people would choose to self-regulate there would be no need to establish legal boundaries for behavior. And most people do operate within the law. But, as Alexander Hamilton is said to have stated in the Federalist Papers “If men were angels, no government would be necessary”, so here we are.
It is important to recognize that American jurisprudence has a good deal of flexibility in dealing with offenders. There are alternate sentencing and treatment options, case management for addicts and juvenile offenders, and defenses that include insanity and diminished capacity. Prosecutors have much power to determine what and how to prosecute, as do police officers as they exercise discretion in their daily encounters.
The idea that wholesale forgiveness, release from accountability, and blaming society and mental illness can result in increased public safety seems not to be working. Certainly, we as a nation must continue to seek to cure social ills and provide services to restore mental health in individuals. But ignoring the suffering of those who feel the brunt of property and violent crime shifts the balance of justice in favor of the offender. That is patently unjust, unfair, and unsustainable.