Saturday, May 19, 2007

Crime And (Low) Punishment

The Columbia Journalism graduation ceremony on May 16 was long as each of the 250 students walked up to receive their diplomas, and we had settled back into a kind of semi-stupor after our own Rubina was done.

The sudden loud applause and standing ovation of one student towards the end of the ceremony took us by surprise. Then I guessed who it was. Rubina later confirmed that this girl was indeed her friend (only four days apart in age and living a few blocks away from Rubina) who some weeks back had been brutally raped and tortured for 19 hours by an ex-convict. Among the horrible things he did to her (not all made public) was slitting her eyelids and leaving her to die by setting her apartment on fire (to cover up any clues) with her tied to her futon bed. The attacker's subsequent arrest was carried by many papers in follow up of the initial story.

This brave girl was hospitalized for weeks and we're glad she could attend her graduation. But note this - her attacker had spent just 8 years for nearly kiling a neighbor by shooting the victim four times. He had a long rapsheet even before that and was considered dangerous at the time he served his full sentence and had to be released. The reason for that paltry eight year sentence? That's the maximum penalty that can be imposed in New York for attempted murder.

While in prison this guy would throw his faeces at the guards and attack other inmates. Such activities could not be grounds for lengthening his sentence. All they did was prevent his release on parole. After he eight years he had to be turned loose, and even his activities could not be monitored, say by requiring him to disclose his whereabouts or wear an electronic ankle bracelet.

There are many similar stories - this is just one that affected Rubina's friend. New York laws seem particularly soft on offenders but I'd want tougher provisions across the country.

I differ from the liberals (many in my own family) who in my view over-emphasize reform and rehabilitation over meting out justice and having a criminal repay his debt to society. When we talk of (or hope for) rewarding good and punishing evil in the after-life, why not start here on earth? There are also deterrent effects of stiffer penalties though statistics can be presented either way by partisans to draw different conclusions on issues like capital punishment.

Here are some measures I'd support:

  • All states should have the death penalty, even if it's only for the most heinous and vicious crimes/murders and when there is no doubt at all about guilt (not just "beyond reasonable doubt.") There should be an ultimate penalty for the likes of Dahmer and Bundy.
  • There should be truth in sentencing - not these provisions that allow a convict sentenced to "life" or hundreds of years to get out in twenty or less. And what's all this about "concurrent sentences" where the additional punishments are meaningless?
  • Convicts considered dangerous at the end of their sentences can be allowed to be monitored in their activities and the community informed about them. This can be done by laws analogous to those passed for sex offenders.
  • Inmate-on-inmate crimes should be vigorously investigated and offenders punished just as much or more than if they were committed outside prison. Why should the weaker prisoners be victims of things like prison rape while the worst offenders thrive at the top of the food chain? With modern technology it should be possible to monitor every move of every prisoner so these Oz-like goings on don't ever happen. And don't tell me this violates privacy.
  • Prisons are for punishment, not for coddling prisoners. They should earn their upkeep instead of limbering up in gyms and watching TV. Yes, the system should aim to rehabilitate as well and find honest jobs when convicts get out, but inmates should have a strong disincentive to return.
  • Don't use tender age as a basis for imposing lighter sentences unless the offender didn't fully grasp what he was doing. If a 16 year old brutally murders someone he should get the same sentence (including death) as a 30 year old. One can almost argue that if he has become such a monster at 16 he's likely to become worse later.
  • Same as above largely goes for mental retardation or childhood abuse.
  • Reform / abolish the system of trials by jury (more on this in a subsequent post.)
I probably disappoint those who lauded my reconciling with a former school bully. But simple bullying by adolescents is not comparable to the crimes I'm talking about here.
At the same time I'd like to see:
  • Strict gun control and stringent penalties for violations of such laws
  • Due process and safeguards for the accused. Those at Guantanamo for instance should certainly get legal representation and humane treatment. Also the innocent caught in the net should be speedily cleared, and generously and expeditiously compensated for their hardships.
A tough crime policy was a crucial plank that helped Bush Sr. beat Dukakis in 1988. Remember those Willie Horton Ads? Since then it has receded as an election issue. I wonder if it will resurface in 2008.


david mcmahon said...

Hi Sandip,

You carry such a powerful message - and you share it with such eloquence.

Congratulations to Rubina and her remarkable friend.



Anonymous said...

Sandip, They say people get more conservative as they get older. You must be older than the picture you posted:)) That's a rather right wing stance you've taken on prisons, though not extreme. Liberals argue that we can lock up these people but if we haven't addressed the causes of crime it becomes an endless cycle. Conservatives argue that people are taught the rules in school, or should know the rules, and if they can't follow them, then lock them up and throw away the keys.

With the prison population exploding the question is what do we do with them after they come back into society. Obviously the hard core like Dahmer(he has to stop playing with his "food":), will either get the death sentence or never come out. But those that do should be given reasonable jobs and wages in prison. Most of them are paid $1 an hour making licence plates, come out with no money, rob, and get thrown back in. There should be junior college type programs that could get them ready for society. I am obviously younger than Sandip:))

Sandip Madan said...

Thanks, David, for your appreciation, especially as it comes from a resident of a country (Australia) that banned the death penalty in 1973, and last executed a criminal in 1967. :-)

Sandip Madan said...

Kenrod, of course I'm as old as the hills. That picture of mine is 2 years old anyway so I need to replace it.

However, my views on the subject here haven't changed since I was a pre-teen. I see the liberals as coddling criminals which amounts to callousness towards the victims. Another takeaway from such treatment would be that "crime pays." The justice angle apart, I'm hoping that adequate punishment also leads to deterrence.

Interestingly, our Univ. of Chicago Professor Gary Becker received a Nobel Prize in Economics in 1992 for his studies that included a rational basis for people committing crimes if the expected gain outweighs the downside.

That said, I'm for measures that can rehabilitate and reform criminals for their life after they serve their sentence. And young Kenrod, I'm sorry to say that a lot of my immediate family thinks the way you do. :-)

kenrod said...

But aren't you the least bit concerned that the prison population is simply exploding? Besides the fact that it costs $30,000 a year to house an inmate. I believe New York has over 90,000 inmates.

Sandip Madan said...

Kenrod, of course I'm concerned, though solutions are better discussed in a separate post. But here are some points to consider:
1) Why should $30K be spent out of taxpayer money per inmate per year? Inmates should pay for their upkeep.
2) Are there alternative punishments that can deter as much as long prison terms, and yet be of greater social value?
3) Can costs per inmate be reduced?
4) Can the wait on death row be reduced to 2 years instead of the current 10-12 in cases where guilt is not in doubt?