Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

30 August 2009

Bang ‘em Up For Longer or Let ‘em Out?

Should crims stay banged-up longer for their transgressions? We, the voters, have repeatedly said that we want them shut away for longer but when I lean towards tougher punishments two things bother me. First: I have always shuddered at the very idea of imprisoning offenders who have not physically harmed anybody and are unlikely to. Why do we lock up embezzlers, fraudsters, bigamists, ‘white collar’ criminals, or robbers of intellectual property? If they aren’t the kind of people who serially kill, chop up neighbours’ faces or rape why on earth do we put them in prison? They’d serve much better sentences working off their crimes and paying back society by earning money, under supervision, most of which could go into the public coffers.

I wouldn’t mind betting that the non-threatening criminal fraternity could, by the sweat of their brows or the machinations of their brains, actually generate sufficient income to pay for the costly incarceration of their violent colleagues: there’s a thought for the Corrections Department.

Secondly, and much more importantly, I can’t escape the feeling that every time a lusty youth rapes an eighty-year old woman, or a bunch of teenagers invades a home and beats up its occupants to produce a net short term gain of a walkman and the contents of a piggy bank, Society - that’s you and me - have failed.

I can remember a time when violent crime was so amazingly unusual that if one occurred it took up the front page of the national newspapers for days on end. So what has changed in a lifetime? We’ve copped out, that’s what. The majority has failed to control the minority and we’re in such a sea of politically correct tiptoeing through individuals’ ‘rights’ that we now opt for the criminal rather than the victim.

Criminality starts in the family and grows in the schoolroom. From life’s outset, parents have got to be tough on their children when it comes to right and wrong, honesty and respect for neighbours. Before the little ones ever reach kindy or school they have to know that teachers are to be respected. Thereafter those teachers must be given the teeth, by parents’ consent and legal permission, to exert their authority. Tolerance of transgression at the nascence of discrimination (four or five years of age?) should be zero, and reinforcement of that regime should never be negative. Punishment should fit the crime so that the offender is left in no doubt of his/her place in a strict but compassionate society.

Above all work should be found for everybody of work age even if that means making able bodied people work on government schemes which they might not like. (You’re listening to a man who spent two reluctant years in the armed forces and only afterwards learned how valuable it was).

Work is important not only because it produces wages and, one hopes, job satisfaction but also because it is an absorption; people who do a hard day’s work find themselves so tired at the end of the day that they have neither the energy nor the inclination to do a warehouse or mug a fellow citizen.

Sure, there will always be the criminals who like to kill and maim for the fun of it. We’ll never get rid of them; they’re sick of mind. But, my way, they’ll be easier to find and one suspects that there are really so few of them that we could afford to lock ‘em up and, as they say, throw away the key.

© In text DON DONOVAN. ‘Prisoners Exercising (after Doré)’ Vincent van Gogh

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By Don Donovan