First Things First: The Mishandling Of Criminal Behaviour

The latest distraction from a sane discussion of criminality centers around the assertion that really awful and cruel behaviour is a “mental health” issue, and that what the perpetrators need (and should have received in the past) is “help.”  They are very “sick” and desperately need treatment for their illness.  And if they get this treatment, their destructive and horrific actions will be eliminated and they will be “cured.”  As I’ve said in the past, nothing could be more wrong, nor could feed the pathology any more.  When I’m asked what we should be doing to end this hideous, animalistic behaviour, my answer often surprises people. 

They expect me, as a mental health professional, to understand what motivates these anti-human actions, and find, or create, “resources” to help these people understand how bad their actions are; how their behaviour is connected to their early life; and how deeply they’ve hurt and destroyed the lives of others.  Having gone through this process, they will emerge with a new and healthier appreciation for civilized societies.  

What people really mean, when they talk about how to end this scourge on our culture, is to put these people in prison-like institutions, and never left them out.  My answer to this dilemma, is simple, but challenging.  We need to respond to this assault on civilization with punishment – a punishment that fits the crime. 

A brief note of cultural history.  The American Experiment is unique among the history of civilizations, in its offering its citizens individual freedom, untold opportunities, protection of their person and possessions, and the option of participating in the choice of who will govern and lead them.  All of this is predicated on the existence of trust between individuals, and trust between people and their institutions.  

And furthermore, this trust is only possible if people believe that they are guaranteed that they will be rewarded and punished, on the basis of what they do, not what they intended to do, or thought about doing.  The difference between a free society and a totalitarian society is the line between action and intention.  The area of our legal, political, and governmental life, in which we wantonly violate this difference, is in the way we deal with criminality.

If your child is kidnapped and murdered, there is no solace, nor any justice, in knowing that the perpetrator was convinced that he was acting on the authority granted him by Martians.  Your child is still dead.  And all your hopes and dreams are gone.  And it is utterly blasphemous to inject the issue of “mental health” into a discussion of what we should do about the senseless and horrific murder of innocent people.  

Anything other than punishment, tears at the very fabric of a civilized society.  It has always troubled me when I witness discussions about “helping” destructive people, and postponing, or eliminating punishment.  It is corrosive and dangerous to provide “help” as the consequence for destroying other people’s lives.  “Help” must never be a substitute for punishment.  We do it at our peril. 

So what am I suggesting?  I’m suggesting the following consequences for behaviour that imperials our very civilization.

If you take someone’s life, you forfeit yours.  No mitigating circumstances, no psycho-babble justifications.

If you assault a perfectly innocent person, and inflict permanent injury on them, you will spend the next fifty years in prison – no probation, no parole.

If you assault a perfectly innocent person and inflict serious physical and emotional damage on them, you will spend the next thirty years in prison –  no probation, no parole.

You get my drift.  Criminality is not just bad, unacceptable behaviour.  It is the precursor to the fall of human culture.

I am often asked why I feel so strongly about criminality.  In the first five years of my practice, I consulted with Federal, municipal, and state criminal justice agencies.  I saw what is often referred to as the “underbelly” of our society. I was in emergency rooms witnessing people so badly beaten that it was hard to picture what their face must have looked like.  One of many similar experiences involved my interviewing convicts, soon to be released.  My role was to provide information that could be helpful to them, re-integrating into civilian life.

One of the individuals I interviewed, a “normal” looking, almost cordial fellow, turned out to be a contract killer for organized crime.  After he told me about his “work,” and his background, I asked him, what he was going to do, when he left prison.  He looked me right in the eye and said – “kill people.”  I asked him why, and he responded – “cause I’m good at it.”  That exchange has stuck with me, for almost fifty years.

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