Gongol.com Archives: May 2024

Brian Gongol

May 9, 2024

News Deterrence and correction

With legal proceedings occupying so much of the news, it's a fair time to consider how well we distinguish between two very different tracks followed by the justice system. There is a significant difference between them, though the difference is far too often overlooked. ■ The first track is the instinctive one: The use of punishment to penalize those whose deviance causes trouble for society. Sometimes the punishment is aimed at deterring the offender at hand, as when a criminal defendant is held in contempt of court. Other times, the punishment of one criminal is intended as a deterrent to others, as when conspirators are threatened with decades of prison time. ■ The other track is taken when society would rather reform the individual's behavior and return a "corrected" whole person back to society. Some 640,000 people each year return to American society after a period of incarceration -- more than the entire population of Wyoming. The needs of society are only really met when these people are truly engaged in a process of reform. Getting probation, work release, and inmate rehabilitation right are important tasks, just on the sheer numbers alone. ■ Parents often need to consider the difference between the tracks even within household affairs: Not every punishment corrects, and not every correction should be punishment. In fact, the vast majority of the time, parents should seek to correct in ways that are expressly different from punishment: Kids do "wrong" things quite often because they simply haven't learned enough yet about what's right. ■ Drawing the distinction is important because those who are chronic, willful, or contemptuous offenders of social orders and abusers of public trust impose real costs on their fellow citizens. For that set, correction is unlikely and punishment as deterrence may be the only sound approach. ■ The costs don't always show up immediately, but Theodore Roosevelt framed the costs of cumulative public malfeasance well: "Nothing so pleases the dishonest man in public life as to have an honest man falsely accused, for the result of innumerable accusations finally is to produce a habit of mind in the public which accepts each accusation as having something true in it and none as being all true; so that, finally, they believe that the honest man is a little crooked and that the crooked man is not much more dishonest than the rest."

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