Time to Rethink Punishment?

I came across this article in the Telegraph the other day, and it got me thinking.

Firstly, I was concerned that only “loving mothers” are referred to in the paragraph about the research. I think this demeans the important role male parents play in childhood and particularly it demeans families like the one I grew up in, where the father is the primary or only carer.

What I really want to talk about, though, is the role of punishment.

I’ll start with an anecdote. I have been smacked exactly once in my life. I remember it vividly. I couldn’t tell you how old I was except that I was young and I couldn’t tell you exactly what I’d done, but Dad told me to go to my room and I was feeling contrary so I refused. And refused. And refused. And I saw something change in his eyes and realised that I’d pushed him too far so turned to flee up the stairs – just fractionally too slow to avoid the stinging open-palm blow to the back of my calfs.

It was not that look of unbridled fury nor the pain that meant I never pushed my Dad that far again. It waas his utter, profound guilt and contrition. The pain was fleeting but the look of horror on my Dad’s face – a look his that I had driven him to had put there – was something I never wanted to see again so I never pushed him that far again. But it was the guilt, not the anger, that acheived the change in my behaviour. He also learnt from the experience – Agent Echo and Agent Whisky were never on the receiving end of a blow and they were no less capable of being crazy-making – but I know from speaking with him that he still feels guilty even though this was over 2 decades ago.

Whilst I cannot condone smacking a child in anger, in this particular instance the punishment worked. I did not reoffend. Most anecdotal evidence I have heard, though, suggests that smacking is not an effective punishment, as those children who have been smacked are as likely to misbehave again as if they hadn’t been. I won’t say smacking is never effective but I think that it is never the better option. The comments section of the above article includes a lot of people saying that not all parents know any alternatives to smacking as a form of discipline, and that is concerning to me. They recognise that it isn’t ideal but don’t educate themselves on alternatives or don’t feel able to ask for assistance. That, I think, is a sad reflection on society. Other comments imply that not smacking your child is a sign you don’t love your child because, the commenter suggests, it isn’t a nice thing to do so you don’t want to do it even though it is better for your child: it is selfish not to smack your child. Other commenters suggest that loving your child instead of smacking them is what leads to the lack of respect amongst youth of today.

Well! ‘Lack of respect amongst the youth of today’ has been a charge levied at younger generations since written records began (or at least, there are Latin texts saying the same), so I think it’s unlikely that today’s youths actually are any worse than those that came before. Also, when there were the London Riots in 2011 I got into a debate on FB with someone insisting that those involved were all involved because they hadn’t been smacked as children. This struck me as erroneous: smacking as a punishment appears more prevalent amongst lower income families and it wasn’t just middle/upper class individuals involved. I doubt that only non-smacked individuals were involved in the riots. Furthermore, most of my peers were rarely or never smacked and they are very respectful individuals – in fact, even my peers who were repeatedly smacked are respectful/respectable so I would suggest that there is far more to making a responsible individual than whether you choose to smack your children or not.

Anyway, back to the point. Punishment is given after a crime. Law is intended to be impartial, so it seems to me that punishment has a two-fold purpose: to deter others from performing the same action and to reduce the chances of the individual repeating the action themselves. this two-fold purpose is important: if only the second point mattered, then the death penalty could apply to any transgression: no one would offend a second time. However, the death penalty does not appear to act as a successful deterrent so is not a suitable punishment. Corporal punishment similarly does not seem to provide either deterrence or reduction in reoffending, so fails on both counts. In the UK, criminal punishment comes in the form of prison sentencing, curfews, fines, community service or other restrictions. The question is, how effective are these at deterring new offenders and reducing reoffenders? I understand, not very. Fines are not effective when weilded against the very wealthy who can ignore the cost and when weilded agaisnt those who cannot afford to pay them can lead to problems which increase risk of reoffence. Prison is often considered to be a place where criminals come to learn their trade, which is supported by high reoffending rates.

Do we need to rethink our punishment systems? Most crimes come from the fractured state of society, so perhaps the money pumped into punishment should be redirected to addressing the root causes of crime – that seems to me to be a more effective way of reducing crime: not by punishing it, but by preventing the need for it. If someone does commit a crime, looking at what lead that individual to carry out those actions and finding out what can be done to improve things not just for that one person but for others in the same situation rather than punishing that one person and allowing others to follow… It would be expensive and difficult and it sounds idealistic but I think it is possible.

I understand the gut reaction desire to inflict punishment, but that makes punishment revenge and that is not the purpose of law. Punishment does not seem to work to prevent crime. Let’s try education, support and respect instead.


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