To punish is to promote: How criminal justice systems can encourage crime


Does a culture that revolves around punishment, mistrust and cynicism yield lawful citizens or does it produce the opposite?

That’s a question that’s been on my mind for the better part of three months as my hometown of Geneva, Switzerland was recently a witness to one of the year’s most shocking crimes.

On a rehabilitation trip outside prison gates, a prisoner and his female psychotherapist left one Thursday to an equestrian centre for rehabilitation purposes. They were alone — unaccompanied. She was unarmed and his hands were free. They never returned. A few days later the body of the 34-year-old female psychotherapist, who had recently become the mother of a baby girl, was found lifeless in the woods, not far from the centre they were expected to visit.

This man wasn’t a thief, nor was he a money launderer. He was, and is, a 39-year-old recidivist rapist. Convicted in 1996 and again in 2001, he often spoke freely of the elation he felt while making victims out of women.

Sentenced to a total of 20 years behind bars (clearly, with a vague appreciation of “behind bars”) the supposed goal of the outing was to “socially rehabilitate” the fugitive, according to the Tribune de Genève’s sources.

Across our nation, and throughout its neighboring cities, his escape not only induced fear, but raised various debates from politicians and the public alike. Why was a recidivist rapist left with a female psychotherapist and no armed escort? In fact, why was a prisoner given the right to experience a free man’s privilege? Were the authorities naive?

Debate is always healthy among society. But let’s not be hasty with our conclusions. There were many mistakes committed in that outing, mistakes that were easily avoidable. But attempting to rehabilitate prisoners so they can reintegrate society is what contributes to our country’s low crime rate.

Let’s compare with the US. With 1.57 million prisoners, the United States holds the world’s highest documented incarceration rate on the planet. Additionally, 4.8 million adults in the United States are either on parole or probation. That means that more than 1 in 50 people in the United States are currently convicted criminals.

For American taxpayers that means they’re spending $28,893.40 for every inmate, or a grand total of $66bn a year. To give you some context, the average income in the United States is of about $35,000 a year.

Numbers like that paint a picture that is far from what should be acceptable from any developed nation.

To a certain extent, that belief is shared by local politicians who’d rather spend more on education and health care than on incarceration. In a speech to the American Bar Association’s annual meeting earlier this year, US Attorney General, Eric Holder explained that his country had an incarceration problem. Citing indisputable evidence, Mr. Holder revealed his discontent by highlighting that while the United States holds a mere 5% of the world’s population, it has 25% of its prisoners. And while the US population increased by about 30% in the last 30 years that growth was not reflected in the nearly 800% increase in prisoners.


Eric Holder, US Attorney General

“Even though this country comprises just 5 percent of the world’s population, we incarcerate almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.”

With a rise in crime in the United States at the end of the last century, politicians hungry for elected office often promised a tough-on-crime strategy that often won them their elections. They then applied mandatory minimum sentences to most crimes, including drug related offenses.

With a 40-year low in crime rates, Mr. Holder now argues that such mandates must change. “We will start by fundamentally rethinking the notion of mandatory minimum sentences for drug related crimes,” he told the ABA, “because they often times generate unfairly long sentences; they breed disrespect for the system.”

Mr. Holder makes a valid point on the topic of disrespect for the system, he however shies on some of the other factors that fuel recidivism. In 1994 a study ordered by the U.S. Department of Justice found that of the 272,111 prisoners tracked, 67.5% of them were arrested for a new offence within 3 years of their release. What could possibly cause such stark recidivism?

While each case will certainly have its own reasons, there’s a larger picture we can look at that might shed some light on the motivations behind recidivism. Lack of trust and acceptance are often roadblocks in the reinstatement of criminals who’ve paid their debt to society. In fact 35 of 50 states in the United States restricts the voting rights of ex-offenders, which amount to a total of 5 million individuals, most of whom are African-Americans. Because of these laws and incarcerations, 13% of African-American men in the United States cannot vote.

What’s more shocking is that the very people who cannot vote can easily have their gun permits reinstated as soon as they leave prisons. In many instances, felons can have their permits restored without so much as a hearing in front of a judge.

The New York Times found that even felons convicted of violent, gun-related crimes can also have their right to bear arms granted again. In a specific example, Times reporter Michael Luo tells the story of a Minnesota man with a history of terrorizing and stalking women who, “got his gun rights back just six months after completing a three-year prison sentence for firing a shotgun into the house of a woman who had broken up with him after a handful of dates. She and her son were inside at the time of the shooting.”

Such attitudes towards those who’ve completed their time behind bars is completely paradoxical. To look at these facts from a very basic level is to basically invite criminals to re-enter society with the same ideologies that landed them into prison in the first place.


We can all agree that to be a healthy members of society we must feel like our presence is important, that we add value to our society, that we matter.

Linda Steel hasn’t always felt like she mattered. She’s battled substance abuse her whole life and has paid the consequences by being in and out of prisons since she started. However, for the past 4 years Ms. Steel has been clean and explains that her life has since completely changed. That feeling felt specially strong last year when she lined up the polling station to cast her vote on her country’s election day, “I had a say” she says. “There were tears in my eyes as I waited to vote. I felt like I was finally a productive member of society. I’ve never before felt like I could make a difference in terms of what happens around me. But I walked out of the polling place on election day feeling like I mattered, that I made a difference. I realized how far I’ve come.”

Linda Steel finally felt like she mattered.

Linda Steel finally felt like a member of a society that for so long denounced her for problems she had little to no control over. That feeling of hope and matter are key roles in her rehabilitation and have clear positive effects on her well-being.

But Ms. Steel isn’t alone. Addiction is a disease that affects millions of people around the world. Whether you’re addicted to alcohol, gambling, cigarettes or drugs, addiction is a disease. Regrettably, addiction is a disease associated with varying amounts of stigma, depending of the legality of the substance or activity. Unfortunately, because drug addicts break the law when they consume their substances the stigma is far too often heightened.

When we know that a staggering 30% of freed prisoners are rearrested for drug related crimes (regardless of their original crime), or that more than half of adult male arrestees in the US are tested positive for at least one drug, we must accept that the method of punishment is not fit for drug addicts. As the White House Director for Office of National Drug Control Policy put it, “we cannot arrest our way out of the drug problem.”

Sweden has one of Europe’s lowest drug uses, but it wasn’t always the case. In the early 1960s, the Swedish government tried to slow the increase in drug use by interestingly doing everything but legalize narcotics. They began a prescription based program where anyone could buy narcotics legally from pharmacies. The program was far from successful; drug use rose by 33% within 2 years which force the Swedish government to reverse the laws and implement a radically different approach on both demand and supply.

To this day Sweden holds one of Europe’s most effective zero tolerance drug policy based around prevention, treatment and control which is very similar to the American system, however what is lacking in the US system is focus on treatment.

Too often criminals are given the same type of sentencing — time behind bars — which satisfies the criterion of punishment but not correction. Such an approach often invites relapses rather than treating the problem at hand, addiction.

Sweden’s drug policy shows they are able to distinguish different crimes and impose different sentences respective of the crime. I believe there are three types of sentencing which should be imposed based on the uniqueness of every case. There are some cases where punishment alone can be an effective means of reform. Others where rehabilitation will be more successful than punishment, especially in cases where individuals aren’t mentally fit to appreciate the consequences of their actions. Finally, and most rarely, there will be cases where criminals will not be able to change and will therefore have to be incarcerated for life for the safety of society.

While Switzerland is still enraged by the negligence shown by the detention facility where the rapist escaped, their intentions were promoting trust, one of the keys to proper rehabilitation and low recidivism (25%).

It’s indisputable, many mistakes were made on that rehabilitation trip, all of which led to the death of a 34-year-old woman. However, what many are confusing is the mistakes of execution with the principle of rehabilitation. He didn’t escape because he was being rehabilitated, he escaped because the facility, and to a certain extent, psychotherapist committed grave and naive mistakes.

For at the end of the day the role of an incarceration centres is to change a person and allow them to rejoin society a better person. Doing anything else compromises not only the inmate’s wellbeing but the safety of society in the long-run.

For in some cases, to punish is to promote.

[Image: Flickr users wim hoppenbrouwers & martin]
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