Does Judicial Punishment Mainly Serve A Revenge Motive?

Here’s a few thoughts stemming from comments on my recent post regarding the Norwegian terror shootings. The discussion got a little confused as people thought I wanted to discuss psychiatry, when I was really only commenting on the judicial concept of criminal responsibility versus insanity.

Why do modern states have systems of judicial punishment? If you look closer at this issue you’ll find that there are several independent motivations that sometimes operate against each other.

1. Violence monopoly and collective revenge. Having been wronged, many people want revenge on the perpetrator. State societies reserve a monopoly on legal violence, so to keep a man from avenging his murdered sister, the state will step in and take care of the revenge. This saves society from the vendetta, the endless cycle of revenge and counter-revenge in pre-state societies that is generally much more harmful to the collective than the original crime. Also, judicial revenge means that people whom nobody would avenge because they are poor or lack family are also avenged.

2. Deterrent. If crime is known to lead to punishment, then hopefully this will lead to less crime.

3. Containment: keeping criminals off the streets. A criminal in jail is much less likely to commit crime against people outside while he is locked up, and it could be argued that crime committed against other convicted criminals a) is a lesser social ill than other crime, b) contributes to the deterrent effect.

4. Reform. Maybe there are methods (short of murder) to force a a criminal to change his ways.

Now, I don’t care about revenge, and I wish that this irrational motive didn’t figure in our judicial systems at all. Once a crime is committed, it can’t be undone by hurting the perpetrator. All society can do constructively is help the victim, preferably at the perpetrator’s expense. But thinking about this I realised that as long as people are irrationally driven to avenge wrongs, we have to deal with this aspect or they will start taking matters into their own hands. This would lead to exactly the sort of violent crime the judicial system is designed to counteract. People have a strong Old Testament feeling that if I cause someone harm, then I should by rights also suffer harm.

Prisons are designed to combine revenge, deterrent, containment and reform. In most parts of the world where prisons are really nasty, they do well at the revenge and containment bits. But they fail resoundingly at deterrent and reform. Inmates come out of prison equally or more likely to commit crime as before. In Western countries, prisons are so humane that there isn’t actually much revenge involved either – prisoners are mainly just very bored and miss their loved ones. Even in humane prisons, having convicted criminals as your entire social circle is not a good way to learn how to lead a peaceful, honest and productive life.

It interested me to read, recently, that most Swedish prisoners prefer jail to an electronic surveillance manacle and a term served at home. The reason is that with the manacle, apparently they feel isolated from their peers – which is of course good both regarding revenge and reform. But a manacle sentence should always be combined with some kind of mandatory productive work.

The judicial system’s intense interest in whether a perp is sane enough to be held responsible for their crime only makes sense from a revenge perspective. Of course it would be unfair to avenge ourselves on someone who doesn’t understand what they did. But if you drop the revenge bit, just as a thought experiment, you’ll find that the determination of free-will responsibility becomes irrelevant. Our need of deterrent, containment and reform is the same regardless of the mental state of the perp. The main issue simply becomes “How do we keep this guy from repeat crime, and guys like him from their first crime?” And this lands us in a social engineering perspective.

If people weren’t so emotionally invested in revenge (and, conversely, in the humane treatment of prisoners), they would demand that public funding for the judicial system be invested only in well-studied, evidence-based, efficacious methods of deterrent, containment and reform. Any current measure that fails to further all these three goals at once would have to be dropped. I don’t know how far criminology has come on these points. But maybe it would turn out that there is no practical, evidence-based reason to keep a lot of current prison inmates locked up. Maybe we pay all that money only for revenge’s sake.

Author: Martin R

Dr. Martin Rundkvist is a Swedish archaeologist, journal editor, skeptic, atheist, lefty liberal, bookworm, boardgamer, geocacher and father of two.

34 thoughts on “Does Judicial Punishment Mainly Serve A Revenge Motive?”

  1. My niece’s husband murdered her and my great nephew. He held a eight year old boy down and hacked him to death with a machete. What “help” could possibly be given us at his expense? At any rate, he hung himself. When the detective told us he suffered, that his hands were on the cord, I was glad. I sincerely hope it’s something you’ll never have to be “rational” about.


  2. Nice start, but when you came to (in)sanity you lost it :o)

    Someone too stupid or otherwise incapable of understanding his/her crime can not be “deterred”.

    He/she can be *controlled* (as being kept by others from doing something).

    He/She can *not* be deterred (as keeping him/herself from doing something).



  3. Separating the insane (who need specialised medical treatment) from the rationally criminal (who need more general reform) is a useful triage even if you take all revenge motive out of the corrections system.


  4. If crime wasn’t so tragic, Martin, your essay would be hilarious. Taking on you 4 points:

    1. State monopoly of violence: absolute non-sense. Do you yourself not play games? Wargames? This is nothing more than displaced violence. A citizen with enough legal knowledge can obtain revenge–or have you not heard of civil court?

    2. Deterrent. I honestly wish imprisonment was a deterrent; I honestly know it isn’t–not here in the US. Hell, Martin, we keep statistics on the murder rate and other violent crimes.

    3. Containment: Prisons are a growing “industry” here in the US. I’m not entirely sure prisons contains violence or encourages it.

    4. Reform. This costs more money than many US citizens are willing to pay.

    Violent criminals are that way for very specific reasons. Determining those reasons takes a lot of time, effort and money. You can’t simply lock them up, and hope that prison will reform someone. The people who do the reforming need to be trained to deal personally with a inmate and the specific causes of that person’s violence.

    The question, Martin, isn’t a matter of your idea–well intentioned as they are. It’s a question of how much time, energy and money is the State willing to put into your ideas, and then compare them with the results. Not everyone can be reformed.


  5. There is another reason which you left out, and which I think is the most important one; to “other” the person who has committed the crime and to move them to the bottom of the social power hierarchy. I think this is essentially the only reason for revenge and punishment in Patriarchal societies such as are characterized by the Abrahamic religions. I have discussed this in the context of xenophobia.

    The whole point of the social power hierarchy is to decide who one will listen to and obey (those above you), who will listen to and obey you (those below you), and those who are so far down that it is ok to kill them (those way below you).

    When the news of this terrorist attack broke, everyone was falling all over themselves to find ways that the perpetrator was not “like them”. That he was “different”, that he was “the other”. That even though he invoked Christianity in his writings, that he was not a “true Christian”.

    The purpose of the criminal justice system is not to reform criminals (because it doesn’t do that and there is no effort to make it into something that could possibly do that), it is not to deter criminals (because it doesn’t deter crime, the most obvious example is drug abuse. When drug addicts are willing to inject drugs using needles they know are HIV-infected, what possible deterrence could being imprisoned have?). What utility does confining non-violent offenders have?

    The purpose of the criminal justice system is to move people down the social hierarchy and in the limit to move them so far down that they can be killed. This is why in the US, it has been the criminal justice system that has been used so much to marginalize minorities, especially blacks. It is why there is no great effort to avoid prosecuting, convicting and imprisoning innocent parties (so long as they are members of a class of “others”). In Texas, innocent people have been executed, the criminal justice system simply refuses to investigate. The recent case of the man executed for arson which killed his children. The arson investigation was highly flawed. He was convicted because he had a lot of tattoos, he was “the other”.

    The social power hierarchy is zero-sum. For someone to move up, someone else has to move down. When people are moved down by the criminal justice system, the prosecutors are moved up. The gain in social power from meting out “justice” to criminals is a major source of power for the “leaders” in a Patriarchal system. The “leader” determines “justice” by fiat and everyone has to listen to him/her because he/she is the “leader”. If you don’t, then you get moved down the social hierarchy and “othered” too.

    This is what the shooter was trying to do in Norway. By killing people he considered to be low on the social power hierarchy (because they were not like him), he expected their social power to flow to him and to his causes. That in times of crisis, people will flock to those with the most power, even if the crisis is caused by those with the most power. This is the SOP for conservatives and especially the right wing and facists. Make people desperate, they will then do desperate things.

    The politicians who pass laws and set penalties for crimes are trying to gain social stature and power from their actions. Being “tough on crime” moves a politician up the social power hierarchy. It doesn’t matter what the “crime” is. Some things, like victim-less crimes are simply things that are considered “bad”, like use of illegal drugs. There is nothing fundamentally different between legal and illegal drugs except their arbitrary legal status. Nicotine is more addictive than heroin, alcohol causes more health problems than does cannabis. Why some are legal and some not is purely arbitrary, those arbitrary decisions have been made to advance the political and social power of those in power. Having been found to have convicted and executed an innocent person would move everyone involved down, which is why they never investigate such things. The criminal justice system is about people in the criminal justice system getting more social, political and economic power.


  6. On March 18, 2011 someone who calls himself Neanderthalcousin uploaded to YouTube a video produced by Michael Moore and gave it the title Michael Moore Goes to Norway & Visits a Prison of the Future. I can’t help wondering if the Breivik massacre will affect the progress that has been made in Norway with respect to criminal rehabilitation as opposed to something less idealistic. It will be interesting to contrast the outcome of Anders Breivik’s trial with that of Jared Loughner in Arizona, one of the least liberal US states.


  7. How about: deterrence and reform should be the goals of a scientific judicial system. That’s just Bertrand Russell. And I agree with him, still.
    I usually think of the problem of what is illegal or not as a separate question – perhaps that needs further thought.


  8. state monopoly on violence might sound good in the (very) abstract, but it has never been absolute. violence in legitimate self-defense, and even in defense of others, is pretty much universally accepted, after all.

    other than that, i pretty much agree. some fraction of criminals — most likely a small minority, but i’m not a criminologist to know — are probably impossible to rehabilitate in any reasonable sense, and so must be contained; for the rest, focusing on revenge to the exclusion of any other concerns might be emotionally satisfying but is ultimately counterproductive and harmful.

    arguing that rehabilitation is expensive is penny-wise but pound-foolish. it’s almost certainly not more expensive than locking a convict or ex-convict into an unproductive and/or criminal life permanently.

    what daedalus proposes is basically that we sentence people to a form of ostracism in order to create our own scapegoats. this is so barbarically likely a notion that it would threaten my faith in humanity, had i any left to lose. :-/


  9. Very nice thought-provoking essay. However, it seems to me that the individual desire for revenge is not so irrational, but rather helps create a deterrent. When someone commits an act of revenge, they are essentially saying “don’t fuck with me (or my loved ones)… we will fuck you up.” Now personally, I think it is better that society takes on the role of establishing this deterrent, but would society really be so effective at establishing a deterrent if the individuals in the society didn’t have a knee-jerk desire for a little stone-age justice?

    Also, Steven Blowney is obviously bleep bleep, but the idea that prison isn’t a deterrent in the US (outside perhaps a small subset of the population) is particularly inane. The “federal pound-me-in-the-ass prison” scenes in the movie Office Space are a better example of how the largely middle-class population sees it.


  10. @ Nomen: I agree that not funding rehabilitation is penny-wise and pound-foolish, but take the individual criminal into consideration. Do you think someone who has multiple life sentences can be reformed? What, exactly, is the point of rehabilitating a criminal who is not going leave his/her imprisonment?

    You may think that life imprisonment is a poor way of dealing with extremely violent criminals, but to simply object to the idea is a denial of reality. Rehabilitating criminals cannot be an abstraction; it must detailed and personal. Also, the prisoner must able and willing to rehabilitated. To be honest, I really doubt that Mr. Anders is willing to agree to change his mind. If you can’t rehabilitate a criminal, what do you do when the sentence is completed?


  11. Stephen, your rebuttals don’t hold a lot of water.

    State monopoly on revenge: It absolutely does, even in the US. Wargames and sports are imaginary or controlled or redirected violence. When you’re done, no one is actually hurt and you plan for the next one. (Well, usually no one is injured in sports, and if anyone does so deliberately, they get dealt with appropriately.) And civil suits give you civil revenge: Money. You don’t ever get permission to beat up or kill the person you sued.

    Deterrent: European countries seem to do very well at deterring crime. What’s the matter with the way you’re doing it? The fact that you can’t deter your citizens from crime does not mean that deterrence is not one of the purposes for judicial punishment.

    Containment: Prisons are a growth industry in the US. That means that the US had better revaluate which crimes earn prison sentences and how the profit motive encourages creating more crimes. That does not change the fact that one of the purposes of prison is to keep dangerous people away from the rest of us. You bring up a good point: US prisons seem to turn bad people into worse people. That seems to mean the US should reevaluate how it runs its prisons. People are having a field day criticizing Norway’s lax prisons, but you’re invited to compare recidivism rates.

    Reform is not a matter of expense. A common argument is that confining people is too expensive, so they should be killed instead. So even confinement under harsh conditions is considered too expensive. Norway seems to be doing rather well with “posh” prisons and reform. What do they know that you don’t? How much does it cost to incarcerate someone in a hellhole, turning them into a worse person, and then letting them back into society? Wouldn’t it be better to reform them and let them be productive?

    Martin’s post is spot on: Those are the four purposes of prison. The fact that the US does very badly at them (except the revenge one) shows not that the purposes are wrong but that the US approach to implementing them is wrong. You are, of course, free to list what you think the purposes of prison are and how they should be implemented. I’d suggest you also research what other countries are doing and whether it works better or worse.


  12. @ William. First, calling me an idiot does not add credence to post–in fact, I consider it an example of displaced violence. Second, why are you using a fictional example to explain your point. Third, do you live in the US? Fourth, I live in Philadelphia, a city where violent crime is an everyday occurance. People have been shot over things like parking spots, smoking, and because I was first there with the tow-truck. Lots of people are sent to prison because of these crimes, but the possibility of going there did not stop them. Here, prison is most certainly not a deterence. I’m very sorry, but you, William, are not dealing with reality.


  13. Wazza, maybe you’re right. But I’m not sure whether we really have well-understood and dependable methods to repair either category of perp today.

    Steve, I don’t understand what you’re saying and I have a feeling that you haven’t quite read the blog entry.

    Daeda, you have an interesting perspective, but it looks US-centric to me. Most countries don’t have that sort of semi-apartheid culture. And more well-functioning democracies don’t have immensely rich elected representatives forming a ruling class like you describe.

    Bob, the Norwegians were loudly determined from the evening after the attacks to not let them affect their open society.

    Rork, I agree, from the perspective of the judicial system’s workings, the actual contents of what is considered illegal is irrelevant.

    William, you’re almost saying “An armed society is a polite society” there… (-;

    Steve again, most prisoners aren’t particularly violent. And life sentences should in my opinion be reserved for those who are.


  14. @ Timberwoof. I would appreciate it if you spelled my first name correctly. Also, I did not say that the State had a monopoly of revenge; I said that they did not have a monopoly on violence. I also said that people take revenge through the legal means of civil court.

    Spare me your European arrogance, Timberwoof, by pointing out that the people in your part of the world are less violent than the people in my part of the world. The deterence from committing a crime in Europe maybe cultural, rather than governmental and institutional. The cultural arguement is probably more murky and so harder to prove, but it’s much more worth while to investigate than anything you or Martin has posted here.

    Face facts, folks, Americans are more aggressive and more violent. I don’t like this particular trait, but pointing that our governments–Federal, State, and local–doesn’t handle it very well doesn’t solve the problem.


  15. When I was working at the National Library of Sweden, Jackie Arklov emailed to request a copy of Mein Kampf. I can’t remember if we supplied it to him, though.

    All I remember is that I commented to my colleagues that someone wanted a copy of Mein Kampf. And when I said the name of the person (which I had never heard before), they nearly fell of their chairs.

    If he was able to obtain a copy from us, there is not much revenge at work in the prison sentence he is serving …


  16. (U.S.) Americans do seem to be a more aggressive and violent lot than most Europeans, there’s no denying that. but not sufficiently so to explain our high incarceration rate, or our disproportionately harsh sentencing standards; there’s more going on here, and a lot of it is likely to do with running prisons as for-profit enterprises. that outright invites corruption, and corruption we do have.

    rehabilitating someone sentenced to life in prison might seem pointless. however: (1) i never denied some people are incorrigible and may need containment indefinitely, so this may describe some of them; (2) none of the above can be taken as implying that any given person sentenced to life imprisonment was sentenced justly and correctly, and is in fact incorrigible; and (3) the more civilized a person you can make out of a life prisoner the easier things are on their jailers, who could probably do with lower risk and stress levels. safer all around that way.


  17. One other point: at least in the U.S., there are both the concept of “not guilty by reason of insanity,” meaning that the person is judged unable to understand that what they did was wrong, and too insane to stand trial, meaning they can’t understand the charge or can’t be sufficiently in touch with consensus reality to attempt to defend against it. That’s not the one who doesn’t understand that murder is wrong; that’s the one who can’t be brought to understand that the charge is that they murdered their cousin. (They might agree that murder is wrong, but not comprehend that they’re accused of it.)

    Administratively, the difference is that if someone is found not sane enough to stand trial, they are held in a mental institution, on the understanding that if they ever (re)gain that level of sanity, the case can go to trial. I think (I am not a lawyer) that this gets into fuzzy boundary issues with some developmental delays, and possibly organic brain disorders (some of the forms of amnesia Oliver Sacks has written about, for example, might make someone unable to participate in any sort of trial, as defendant or witness; or they might be able to describe specific events in the past, but not comprehend that they had promised to tell the truth, or why they were being asked these questions).

    (I’m not sure this makes much difference to what you’re saying, though it seems clear that the concept of deterrence only works if the person it’s addressed to can comprehend “if A, then B.”)


  18. Apparently in 2007 Jackie Arklov was studying for a Masters whilst in prison. Maybe we did supply him with a copy of Mein Kampf, then.


  19. Martin, I reread your original post three times, and I still disagree with you.

    Consider the following:

    The US has the largest incarceration rate in the world. Do you really think the threat of imprisonment acts as deterent? Not here, in the US, where prisons are growth industry.

    But let me take each of your four points again:

    1. State monopoly of revenge. I suspect there are no philosophical or statistical proofs of this idea. Be that as it may, I don’t think The State has monopoly on revenge. If you do, Martin, be the skeptic you claim to be and provide proof.

    1A. State monopoly of violence. I have already posted that this idea is non-sense and why. The truth of the matter, as I see it, is the nature of violence. Games are displaced violence–look at your European football hooligans and tell me they’re peaceful and I’ll sell you the Brooklyn Bridge.

    2. The threat of prison is a deterence. I have already pointed out that this simply wrong. Prison does not stop people from committing violent crimes. If that were true, then the news story I posted a few minutes ago would be the exception. Unfortunately, it isn’t here. Yes, the American Prison System has its flaw, but is it a matter of cause or effect? I suspect the fact will tell us it’s somewhere in between.

    I think the deterence for violence and violent crime is a cultural phenomina, instead of an institutional-governmental result. As I’ve also stated, this a harder idea to prove, but I suggest a comparison between the American Culture (admittedly a murky idea) and the European Culture (also admittedly a murky idea) would be more profitable.

    3. Prisons are forms of containment. I agree, but that’s it. Prison populations are not immune to violence, from either the inmates or the guards. In fact, there is one sub-group of Americans who seem to believe that prison time is some sort of rite of passage. I’ve walked around Philly and seen people wear “G-Unit” tee-shirts, etc.

    4. Prisons reform inmates. I wish this were true, but my point is that reforming a criminal take someone who is trained in the task. Reforming a criminal takes not only training, time, and training, but a willingness of the inmate. This is not always so: how many inmates released eventually return to prison? I’ve heard it’s something like 73 percent here in the US.

    I don’t disagree that the way the US runs it’s judicial and prison system is correct. Of course, I’d like to see reform, however, considering our Federal just agreed to cut trillions of dollars from its future budget, do you really think it’s possible?


  20. how many inmates released eventually return to prison? I’ve heard it’s something like 73 percent here in the US.

    and how seriously does the U.S. penal system take the issue of reforming inmates, that we might call this failure either surprising or predictable based on the effort put into preventing recidivism? not very seriously at all, if the common middle-class USAnian’s understanding of prison realities is anywhere near to the truth of it.

    be careful that you don’t fall into the arch-conservative’s catch-22; of sabotaging or ignoring some attempt at social reform to the point where it predictably and inevitably fails, then holding the failure up as an example of why social reform ought not be attempted since it’s doomed to fail. well yes, if you leave the henhouse-guarding in the paws of the foxes…


  21. Steven, one way we could reform the US prison system is to make first-time non-violent drug offenses no longer capable of carrying prison time – or indeed, make, for instance, all drug offenses carry a penalty of a fine. (violent offenses would then be prosecuted under normal anti-violence statues.)

    This would:
    1) cut costs.
    2) raise money.

    It would be reform. and it would improve budgets.

    so yes, reform is possible despite budgetary problems. There are many forms of reform which are cheaper in the short AND long runs, and of course if some kind of reform improved the recidivism rate, that would almost certainly be cheaper in the long run even if it was more expensive in the short run.


  22. I disagree with revenge being an “irrational motive”, in fact I consider it one of the most natural and understandable motives around.
    It’s easy for us to sit around the coffee table and discuss these type of crimes and what should be done with criminals conducting horrible acts of violence and other crimes to unsuspecting innocent people. It’s probably not so easy to do so if you’re affected by one of these crimes yourself.
    Like you said it’s society’s way of taking care of justice so that each individual doesn’t need to go out and take care of this; what i consider rational, act of revenge themselves, something which they might not have the ability or means to do.
    I guess it’s just a matter if you consider revenge/punishment rational or irrational. I consider it completely rational and having children myself, i can positively say that if my they were ever subject to one of these horrible crimes I would myself go out and take care of the revenge if society didn’t do it for me. I would consider it irrational NOT to do so and i wouldn’t be able to rest until I had done everything in my power to avenge my children. Anyone can look down at this point of view as simple or uncivilized and no it doesn’t undo the original crime but there is something to be said for revenge and punishment. I don’t find those things irrational in any way.


  23. I disagree with revenge being an “irrational motive”, in fact I consider it one of the most natural and understandable motives around.

    natural and understandable doesn’t mean rational, or even sane.

    i can easily imagine myself in a crime victim’s shoes; i can imagine crimes bad enough that i would want to see the perpetrator drawn and quartered, or impaled, or any number of equally horrible things. that doesn’t mean it would be at all smart to grant me such a vengeance.


  24. Steven, you and I agree that prisons are not doing well as a deterrent. Maybe I should have said this clearer in the blog entry. You seem to get the ambitions of the judicial system confused with the outcomes.

    1. States certainly aspire to a monopoly on violence, regardless of whether there’s a revenge motive or not. You may have noticed that assault, manslaughter and murder are illegal in many jurisdictions. I’m not saying that this is completely successful everywhere. You may also have noticed that private individuals are not encouraged to keep armies, navies or air forces. Violence monopoly.

    2. Prisons are intended as a deterrent. As you note, they don’t seem particularly successful.

    4. Ambitions vs. outcomes.

    To me, the budget cuts look like a golden opportunity to get rid of the US prison industry and a big chunk of its military. But I realise that sadly, the people who have forced the budget cuts prioritise spending on these very things.


  25. Ulf, “irrational” means “emotional”, “instinctive”, “not based on cold logic”. Reasonable Swedish translations would be känslostyrd, instinktiv and inte grundad pÃ¥ sval logik. So you and I appear to be in agreement.

    And welcome to the blog! Great to see old buddies here!


  26. Thanks guys for pointing out what rational and irrational means, i knew what it meant but i realize from my post it looks like i don’t, I apologize for that.


  27. Human beings are hardwired to punish norm violators, even when they are not themselves victims. Hence “altruistic punishers” -an article in Science covering the subject was illustrated with Dirty Harry at the moment he succintly informs a norm violator he will derive pleasure from administering altruistic punishment.

    Less extreme cases of altruistic punishments are what keeps the informal society functioning -alongside more obvious “tit-for-tat” punishments (you did not buy coffe, so forget about getting any more coffe from me).

    The problem is when intuitive behaviour is allowed to govern the punishments of formal justice (cutting the hand off the thief, for example. Or the infamous chain gangs that have been resurrected in the South).
    No one has managed to come up with a truly effective solution (but sometimes you can cut down on recidivism- cognitive behavioral therapy has some success in teaching offenders how to manage conflicts).
    And in Sweden a group of former criminals (KRIS) have been quite successful in rehabilitating ex-cons that are motivated to make a clean break with their past.


  28. Martin, the ambitions of “The State” is something the US has spent the last 2 months arguing about. History is littered with states that have forcefully had a monopoly on violence–Nazi Germany, Stalin’s USSR, and Pol Pot’s Cambodia are a few well-known examples. Sadly, some current States believe the old Maoist saying “Power is from the Muzzle of a gun” with Syria being the latest example.

    As I’ve stated I honestly wish prisons were a deterent.

    Yet, prisons in some of the States I’ve listed reflect the ambitions you discuss. The Nazies built prisons to exterminate The Jews and other undesirable peoples. Stalin’s Gulag system was built to create terror.

    As for the US prison system, you have to ask which system is being discussed. The Federal system or the States’ systems? Yesterday, I read that the States’ systems usually have the most violent criminals, with something like 52 percent of inmates being convicted of violent crimes. What does this reflect? To be honest, I have no answer, but I have the feeling that prison is simply a warehouse for undesireable people.


  29. People who are dismissing the idea of a state monopoly of violence/revenge are missing the point that, at least in some countries there is a historical dimension to this. The point of the king (crucially Henry II in the case of England) taking on an enforcement role was an explicit attempt to address the problem of private feuding in the kingdom, which was making life insecure for the king’s subjects. The idea was that if you (assume “you” are an aristocrat for these purposes) had a crime committed against you, then instead of getting your friends together and committing one back, you complained to the king’s local representative (Sherrif) and he, in the king’s name, adopted your side in the quarrel and organised the local gentry (Posse Comitatus) to fetch the offender in and sort him out in the king’s court.

    This was generally felt to be an advance on blood feuds that might last generations. Of course it was about revenge, because the feuds it was substituting for were about revenge. The system was set up on that understanding. And equally it was about asserting a monopoly of violence, however imperfectly, because that was the USP – it was quicker and safer than letting everybody go on burning each others’ barns for a hundred years.

    Times changed. People changed. Laws changed. Piecemeal.

    These days we have police forces rather than Sherrifs and Posses and ordinary folk are a little better served, but the important point is that the present state of affairs is evolved, not designed. If you want a new, shiny criminal law system, fine, agitate for a constitutional convention or whatever it would take, but complaining about the imperfections of the present as if it was thought up just like that is hand wavy. A supertanker that’s been accreting bugs and features for 900 years turns very slowly.


  30. Uhhh, maybe some time when you learn to spell uor frist mane croccetly yuorslef? 😉 A-ha:

    @ Timberwoof. I would appreciate it if you spelled my first name correctly. Also, I did not say that the State had a monopoly of revenge; I said that they did not have a monopoly on violence. I also said that people take revenge through the legal means of civil court.

    Spare me your European arrogance, Timberwoof, by pointing out that the people in your part of the world are less violent than the people in my part of the world. The deterence from committing a crime in Europe maybe cultural, rather than governmental and institutional. The cultural arguement is probably more murky and so harder to prove, but it’s much more worth while to investigate than anything you or Martin has posted here.

    Face facts, folks, Americans are more aggressive and more violent. I don’t like this particular trait, but pointing that our governments–Federal, State, and local–doesn’t handle it very well doesn’t solve the problem.

    Posted by: SteVen Blowney


  31. William –

    It is all good and fine to claim that prison is a deterrent and then cite the fears of the middle class, when the vast majority of people in prison (at least in the U.S.) are below – generally quite a ways below middle class. When you live at the bottom and have been acculturated to the violence of certain segments at the bottom, prison is not only not a deterrent, it is sometimes actually desirable.

    And if you are homeless, there can be even more motivation to go to jail or prison (in the U.S. these are two very different situations). I know at least two people who committed precisely the right crimes to get sentenced to ninety days – so that they could demand and receive healthcare. This still leaves them heavily in debt – that treatment isn’t “free,” but they are already homeless so that really isn’t a problem.

    Then there are the mentally ill – many of whom are also homeless. Lack of treatment is very common, because even if they get help, they live in group homes at best, where they can leave any time. This often leads to them disappearing onto the streets and going off meds. They should be in an institution that will keep them safe, but they aren’t. Which is how the U.S. prison system has also become the “new” (deinstitutionalization started in the late sixties) asylum system.

    Martin –

    I absolutely agree with you and would love to see science driven prison reform – as well as less prison, more community based sentencing (ie. tethers and close probation supervision). I do believe, however, that we also need to have the option of segregating certain types of violent offenders. I don’t think that someone who got into a brawl should do time, but someone who beats someone else half to death, or kills them should be segregated.

    I also believe that we should be sentencing more people to mental institutionalization. There are far too many people in prison, who need mental health services. If they committed violent crimes, then by all means, ensure they are segregated from society (and from other, non-violent patients), but also make sure they are receiving adequate and reasonable mental health services. To be very clear, this is not something that prisons can manage. In the very “best” prisons, in the context of mental health treatment, the care is akin to how the mentally ill were treated during the Victorian era.

    This is an extremely complex issue and I am glad to see you address it. U.S. Americans tend to have a very different take on this and unfortunately, I think the only thing that will stem the tide of our absolutely insane prison driven justice system, will be economic realities. The problem with that being, we still won’t be trying to reform anyone – we just won’t be sending as many people to prison.


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