Doing Your Time

The topic of the day, besides changing Shortland Street actresses, seems to be violent criminals being paroled and then going on P-fuelled rampages. The term comes from the French word for “word” – the idea being that a convicted criminal can give his word that he won’t break certain rules, and so he’s allowed out of prison.

Now, whether or not that’s a good idea naturally comes down to your attitude towards prison and the justice system in general. What is the justice system for? And does parole help towards that goal?

Stephen Franks says parole’s pointless. He reckons that by (further) lowering the odds of spending a lot of time in jail, the gambling mind of the criminal is even more likely to commit crimes. Also, criminals aren’t serving the sentence they’ve been given. Graeme Edgler explains non-parole periods of imprisonment as the actual punishment, and the maximum sentence provides protection to the community. He says, “The existence of a system of parole means we can keep certain criminals in prison even after their punishment is over, if their release would pose a risk to the community.”

Both attitudes are to some extent tainted by the superstitious idea of “deserving punishment”. A popular concern with parole – especially with the Sensible Sentencing Trust, which embodies the superstition – is that criminals are getting off easy, without having been punished with the suffering they deserve.

I’ll try to explain this bizarre idea of “deserving” and “punishment”, in case you’re not familiar with it. Basically, these think that humans have a thing they call “free will”. It’s never really clear what this thing is, but it’s sort of the idea that when you make a choice, even though you chose to do one thing, you could have chosen to do something else. It’s as if you can totally step out of yourself and your situation and choose without any of those things that make choice possible (upbringing, hormones, emotions, etc.)

To make things worse, there are “good” actions and “evil” actions, and if you choose to do an “evil” action, you accumulate invisible points in a magical invisible scale in space or something. This is called “guilt”. And once you have accumulated invisible guilt points, the world will be a better place after you have suffered. And since the world doesn’t always make guilty people suffer, we have to do the job ourselves, and even up the invisible point scales by inflicting suffering on those who have accumated invisible guilt points. And failing to inflict that suffering is an evil action itself, and you can get invisible guilt points for it.

So when it comes to criminals, they’re people who chose to do evil things, even though they could have – and “should have” – done good things instead, and so they have invisible guilt points and the justice system makes the world a better place by inflicting suffering on them. The more evil the action, the more suffering it takes to make the world a better place.

Unfortunately, these poor, deluded individuals have been rather influential in the past, and so the justice system has traditionally been more interested in evening up the invisible scales than actually reducing evil actions. Partly because to suggest that you can systematically reduce crime is to suggest that maybe crime has causes, rather than it just being those instances when people use their free will to choose to be evil.

On top of that, once the invisible scales have been evened up, there’s no reason left to inflict suffering on someone, so it’s good to let them go back into the community, no matter what kind of person they may still be.

If they were really concerned with reducing crime and not evening up invisible scales, the whole emphasis of the justice system would be on:

    1. Prevention – looking at the factors that cause people to commit crimes, and reducing them.


  • Protection – of the community from people who have proven themselves dangerous.



  • Rehabilitation – methods of changing people from being the kind who commit crimes to the kind that don’t want to.



  • Disincentive – a poor substitute for (1) and (3).


That would have two consequences for parole. Firstly, if a person has proved themselves to be a violent, dangerous person, they should not be allowed out until they have proven themselves to be a social, non-dangerous person. Secondly, the complete emphasis of prisons should be on rehabilitation, with no superstitious ideas of “punishment” getting in the way of that project.


4 Comments Doing Your Time

  1. Dominic

    Ack. What I mean is:

    It’s called the “justice” system, apparently. It seems less to do with the practice of law, and more to do with that other meaning of justice: “equity”. Those invisible scales are inherent in the very name of the thing.

  2. Dominic

    Oh, yes, that too. I’m not trying to _justify_ the system (ugh, sorry). Just pointing out that it’s not even a concealed intent to punish people.

    It’s written right there on the label: this is us getting even.


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