Crime & Punishment 1

Why Punishment Isn't Enough...

Offender - iStock_000007572083XSmall Chris Hepburn

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/ChrisHepburn

I’ve heard it a thousand times, “If it was up to me, I’d throw away the key.

Young people who commit crime are a real public nuisance. Few would dispute this. Knowing offenders get punished is somehow satisfying.

Maybe it’s knowing that there really is some justice in the world. Maybe it’s the warm glow of knowing that the kid did something wrong and now they’re getting their comeuppance.

But many believe that we don’t punish enough. We’re “too easy on them.”

Here’s the kinds of things people say:

  • “He did that and all he’s getting is…”
  • “If I had my way, I would…”
  • “Prison is too good for ’em, I think they should…”

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And on it goes.

But what is all this invective about? Why do people seem unable to let the system do its work, without the need to constantly cry out for more punishment?

Doubtless we each have our perspective, but I reckon there are a number of common reasons.

Why people want more punishment for young offenders:

  • Because we wouldn’t commit the crimes – so we struggle to understand those who do. We just can’t relate to it.
  • We can’t see why someone else would offend – so the worse the crime appears to be, the greater the struggle to understand it. And the more punishment is called for.
  • We view offenders as somehow separate from us – as being intrinsically different. Even though we may accept that offenders are human beings, they must be different to us.
  • We want some satisfaction – The idea of punishment somehow makes us feel better. Maybe it’s justice. Or maybe hearing about the crime shocks us, and punishment makes us feel better. It’s like we need to balance the equation in some way.
  • Crime makes us angry – particularly if we’re the victim or we know someone who is. When crime gets close to home we feel violated, threatened, insecure. So we get mad about it. The closer it comes, the madder we get.
  • There but for the grace of God… Some of us could easily have ended up in trouble ourselves. But we didn’t. Maybe due to chance or a good decision at a key time. More often, perhaps, because we pulled back from the brink, influenced by good parenting and supportive family and friends. Youth crime, for some, is just too close to home to be comfortable. So maybe attack is the best form of defence?…

Whatever our reasons, crime evokes strong feelings. Sometimes very strong feelings. Some crimes are so appalling that we can’t even start to make sense of them. But we certainly want justice-or at least what we see as being justice-to be done. That’s usually when the invective starts.

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Final thought…

Like us, young offenders hear what people say. They know what people think about crime and how angry they get. Worst of all, they hear the call for punishment.

Those of us who work with young people who offend must remember this. They need us to be patient. They need us to look beyond the offence/s to the real person. The whole person. One sniff of judgment and we lose them. We lose the trust that gives us permission to help.

Without help, the really troublesome kids will just go on offending. With or without punishment…

What next?…

In the next posts on this subject, I want to look at some of the causes of crime and ask the million dollar question: “What can be done about it?”

What do you think?

The list above is far from exhaustive! These are just my initial thoughts.

Please let me know what your thoughts are – why you think people feel so strongly about punishing young people who offend. Leave a comment below or click here.

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© Jonny Matthew 2013

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  • John Lewindon

    great post and thanks for being reflective. I would appreciate the blogs being available in PDF format as well so i can download and pass on to my social work students and foster carers. this is a great blog and i am sharing this with my social work friends

    • Thanks John! I will work on the pdf format, I think it’s a great idea. Appreciate you feeding back in this way. Watch this space…

  • Re the pdf idea – having consulted my techy little brother (http://www.meaningfulmoney.tv/) this isn’t as easy as it sounds. The best way forward would be to direct people to the website and suggest that they subscribe. That way they can get the posts direct in the clearest format, look over older posts, etc. Of course, if they prefer, they can always print things off in hard copy. Or you could do this for them, I guess? Thanks for the thought, John. Cheers, J.

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