Heading off the Criminal Urge

A man is innocent until proven guilty, of course, but nevertheless it is difficult to suspend judgment altogether when a decapitated torso along with that torso’s head is found in the flat of a man who has long been involved in violent crime, is known to have had an argument with the torso when it was still alive and connected organically to its head, and has been seen carrying large bags into the flat while adopting various, albeit not very effective, disguises. Such is the case of Sheldon Johnson, a forty-eight-year-old man in The Bronx.

Mr Johnson had recently become something of a minor celebrity. He appeared on the show of a popular podcaster to explain how he was a reformed character after a life of violent crime in which he had been a ruthless, psychopathic gang leader, including in prison. Moreover, since his release from prison, trying to do good after having done so much harm, he had been working with youths in The Bronx who were supposedly “at risk” of becoming criminals.

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I found the term “at risk” in this connection both odd and significant. By “at risk of becoming” was meant, presumably, statistically more likely to become. It is a term taken from medical parlance: for example, doctors speak of obese people (or increasingly of “people with obesity” or even of “people living with obesity”) being at risk of becoming diabetic, or of people with high blood pressure being at risk of having a stroke or heart attack.

Criminality, and ultimately all human conduct whatsoever, is here conflated with disease, and thereby becomes a disease in itself. For example, I am at high risk of going into a bookshop and buying a book. I can no more help it than can a person with a family history of, say, gout, help having a higher-than-average chance of developing gout. Statistical chances rule the world, including the human world; besides which, for me at my age to buy more books is irrational, the sign both of a compulsion and an obsession—which, as everyone knows, are diseases. The only way that these diseases can be cured is for the government to give me so many books that I will no longer feel the compulsion to buy.

While reading the story of Mr Johnson, I came across another locution that I found strange—and sinister. Called by other tenants to the building where he had his flat, the police decided to do something called “a wellness check”. This phrase seems to turn the police conceptually into a force of armed district nurses. It didn’t take them long to discover that Mr Johnson’s victim—assuming Mr Johnson to be the perpetrator, which seems likely—was not very well, because decapitation is not a sign of health and wellbeing. It is worse even than depression.

But what if the police had found only that Mr Johnson had not been taking his pills, or not been eating with appetite? Would they have taken him into custody for further “wellness checks”? The language of therapy and organised benevolence seems to have invaded all state activities.

I come now to the question of how Mr Johnson’s return to atrocious crime after so many years in prison might be interpreted. There are two possible extreme points of view: the first is that it is evidence that prison does not work and therefore should be abolished as a totally ineffective institution; and the second is that prison sentences for those who commit crimes such as his (prior to the murder) should be much longer, probably lifelong.

Generally speaking, those who incline to the first view will be thought of as “nicer” than those who cleave to the second. They are not punitive, sadistic or despairing of human nature, and admit of the possibility of a person changing for the better. They do not want to lock people up at all, let alone for good.

On their side of the argument is the fact that we should always be wary of depriving people of liberty; moreover, it is empirically proven that people can change because they do change, and whatever happens must be possible. The statistics are quite clear on this. Once criminals reach their thirties, their rate of conviction declines, and I do not think that this is simply because they get better at avoiding detection. Very few people (comparatively speaking) are sentenced to prison after the age of thirty-nine for a fresh crime that they have committed. Assault, burglary, robbery, are overwhelmingly for young men, even taking exceptions into account. The change occurs irrespective of any effort or lack of effort to bring it about.

But on the other side of the argument is the fact that, so far, no one has thought of a viable alternative to prison, at least in many cases. Furthermore, it must be remembered that punishment is not therapy, albeit that it is a good thing if, in effect, it acts as such. It has aims other than reform of him who is punished. It is not psychoanalysis with prison food (as ghastly a combination as it is possible to imagine).

It goes without saying, almost, that prison sentences should be as short as possible. I say “almost” because it is conceivable that short sentences could have a salutary effect on those subjected to them while failing to deter others in society “at risk” of committing crime. Thus, a high rate of “therapeutic’” success is perfectly compatible with a high rate of crime. Moreover, most victims of crime—most, not all—find leniency very disconcerting. It is as if the state did not take their fear, loss or injury seriously.

The term “short as possible” in this context, while seemingly simple, is in fact exceedingly complex and probably indefinable. As possible for what purpose? For lowering the rate of recidivism, and if so, by how much? For compatibility with a given level of public expenditure? For sufficient expression of society’s disapproval of what criminals do? For a preselected deterrent effect (almost impossible to measure)?

It seems that we have to rely almost on instinct, or at least on feeling, to decide: and what so many people want to feel is good about themselves. Criminological data are not of decisive use: not only are they frequently manipulated by governments, but statistics do not speak for themselves and require interpretation, among other things for their salience. Whether or not a prisoner should be released on parole is often decided on the basis of statistical speculations about his future conduct, but no prediction can be beyond reasonable doubt, the standard which authorises or justifies imprisonment in the first place. Thus, the system of parole is inherently arbitrary unless parole be granted as of right or a matter of routine, irrespective of the prisoner’s supposed “progress” in prison and his likely future conduct.

Leniency is compassionate, severity cruel: such at any rate is the presumption of the intellectual middle classes, who, perhaps feeling guilty at their own good fortune, often inherited, by comparison with the classes from which criminals are usually drawn, find in making excuses for the latter, and in proposing lenient treatment of them, a way of demonstrating their generosity of spirit. I have rarely met such a person who has taken full cognisance of the fact that most of the victims of crime, as well as the perpetrators of it, are poor—relatively, that is. Most criminals are not great travellers: they rob, burgle and assault those around them, and since in the right circumstances they will readily admit that they have committed far more crimes than they have ever been accused of (borne out by, or compatible with, the fact that the police solve only a small proportion of crimes recorded by them), it follows that leniency is not necessarily compassionate, at least not if compassion is to be measured in part by its practical results and is not simply a warm, fuzzy feeling of self-congratulation at not being ungenerously punitive.

It is as well to remember, however, that no system of criminal justice will ensure that there are never again such people as whoever decapitated the victim found in Sheldon Johnson’s flat. Individual propensity to do evil is always distributed in a normal curve, and the most that any system can do is move the whole curve either in the direction of good or evil. But that is already much. 

Under his pen-name Theodore Dalrymple, Anthony Daniels recently wrote The Wheelchair and Other Stories and These Spindrift Pages, a collection of literary observations and reflections (both published by Mirabeau).

6 thoughts on “Heading off the Criminal Urge

  • Botswana O'Hooligan says:

    It goes without saying, almost, that prison sentences should be as short as possible.

    My old Mum would agree with the foregoing 100% for she maintained that first offenders be taken to prison and then promptly hanged with recidivists given somewhat harsher treatment. Mind you, a point in her favour was that she insisted the miscreant be given a fair trial before the short prison sentence was handed down.

    • Davidovich says:

      I am with your mother on short sentences but wondered about the harsher treatment for recidivists who, presumably, had already been hanged. Were they to be treated as with Oliver Cromwell who had been dead for two years before his corpse was dug up, hanged and beheaded, and his head impaled on a 20-foot (6-meter) spike?

  • Ian MacDougall says:

    Comment: A good piece here.
    The ever-increasing surveillance of an ever-increasing proportion of the population around an ever-increasing slab of the clock-face, is arguably steadily heading us towards an Orwellian future.
    In this connection, the first-hand observation of the Stalin-era Soviet dissident Nadezhda Mandelstam springs to mind, in which she said that by some time in the USSR of the 1930s, “people had ceased communicating.” To hear talk deemed seditious, or something critical of Stalin’s regime and then fail to report it, was itself a crime. Spies and informers were everywhere, and possessed of various motives; also aware that as the population of the ‘Gulag Archipelago’ steadily increased in size, so increasing number of people were disappearing into it.
    Closed-circuit TV (CCTV) and drone and satellite surveillance can only be welcomed by the Xi Jinpings and Putins of the world.

    • Lawrie Ayres says:

      We will only get there if we keep electing those who think it a good idea that they should control us rather than the other way around. When elections come around the voters should identify the worst policy on offer, forget the rest, and then select/vote for the candidate least likely to introduce it. At the moment people tend to try and compare menus and invariably find some goodies that over ride their common sense.

      As for prison it is the deprivation of freedom that is the punishment. Prisoners should not have additional punishment, either from guards or from other inmates, nor should they have undue privileges.

  • pmprociv says:

    Yes, Anthony, I too am afflicted with consumptive bibliophilia, the only one among my siblings to suffer from this disorder, probably passed down from my dad. I wonder when the genetics will be sorted out, and effective treatment formulated? Don’t tell me the research isn’t being done. In the meantime, trigger warnings should be posted on bookshop doors for our protection.

    As for crime and punishment, some argue there’s no such thing as free will, making criminals victims of their unfortunate circumstances (including genetics), and so not responsible for their transgressions. However, if mysterious brain workings are what drives folk to crime, then surely an added factor for the brain to chew over, introducing a deterrent effect, would be the prospect of meaningful punishment (should the offender be apprehended, of course). As you and I well know, however, some people are so deranged, those habitually violent sociopaths, that they’ll be a permanent menace to society, regardless of deterrents, even capital punishment. They should taken out of circulation forever.

    As for all those nice, compassionate folk of the intellectual middle classes who prefer leniency over severity, and want prisons done away with, how arrangement be made so they can take in miscreants until they’ve reformed and disavowed their wicked ways?

  • Gordon Cheyne says:

    It comes down to a choice: do we want justice or forgiveness?
    Remember that forgiveness requires the suspension of justice.

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