In earlier posts, I described two approaches to living with respect to the historical record we leave behind.
One approach I described as being like an employee of history who strives to identifying the acts with the most beneficial outcome to add to the historical record instead of the bucket of missed opportunities. Like regular employment (especially a management employee), this is an ongoing occupation with a sense of continued anxiety about making the right choices.
The other option is to focus entirely on relationships with others in the present. This approach doesn’t ignore history but it also doesn’t make history the motivation of decision making. Decisions are made for the greatest good for the immediate relationships we care about. If history is a consideration at all, it may be to hope that history records our outgoing and caring relationships with other beings who share the same instant of the present.
These two approaches can lead to a difference in defining what crime is and the optimal punishments.
The medieval church as state government (at least as currently popularized) was a government that is strongly interested in getting history right. To them, the getting history right meant gaining and maintaining the approval of God and saving souls.
In terms of identifying criminal behaviors, there is a lot in common with modern and medieval law. We instead differ greatly on the perceived severity of the crimes and the appropriate punishments.
Medieval thought emphasized the saving of an individuals soul and preserving the God’s good will toward the community.
Modern thought emphasizes benevolent relationships with fellow citizens for peaceful coexisting and well running economies.
I’m biased in preferring the modern approaches, but I am interested in exploring how this changes the approaches to punishment.
Thankfully we replaced medieval punishments of public shame, corporal punishments, torture, and death sentences with private punishments of incarceration or fines.
One way to interpret this shift is the shift from thinking toward the importance is treating people well in the present tense and being concerned about history primarily to the extent of its recording our generosity toward our fellow beings.
The medieval may have perceived a downside to incarceration. From a point of view of getting history right and especially of saving souls, there is an incentive to get the guilty party back to regular society as soon as possible to have the opportunity to participate in activities that can save their souls or contribute to the greater virtues of their community. They chose punishments that were quick. There will be some time for healing and possibly there will be permanent scars and disfigurement, but the punished returns quickly to freely participate in society.
In contrast, consider our more humane option of long term prison sentences. Some sentences may last a lifetime. Often the sentences can last for most of the productive period of a person’s life. Although a prisoner is treated humanely, he is denied the freedom to participate in society. When he finally is released, so much time has elapsed that he has very little connection to the society he re-enters. He is faced with building new relationships from scratch, and with developing skills for productive participation in the nearly foreign culture. His absence and advanced age severely restrains his ability to reintegrate with society despite having fully earned his freedom by serving his sentence.
I contrast the two routes to punishment. One is the abandoned route of brief punishments possibly resulting in scars and disfigurement but immediately returned to society. The other is the route of long prison sentences where the individual is treated humanely but has no freedom to participate in society.
Our approach earns praise for our good treatment of our fellow citizens who happened to have committed crimes.
But the older approach values more highly the very limited precious time we have on earth to be able to contribute productively and beneficially to history.
Perhaps also implicit in the older approach is the recognition that most crimes occur during youth. Many redeeming benefits to self and society come from older people who remained active in society. That opportunity is greatly diminished when someone is released after decades of imprisonment.
Our emphasis on good treatment of fellow humans results in unproductive lengthy prison sentences. An emphasis on the importance of participating in society to advance good outcomes in history may prefer shorter but more cruel punishments.
I prefer our current approach but our only lever of severity is the length of the sentence. This is compounded by scaling the length of sentences to be proportional to the severity of the crime. A worse crime has to have a longer sentence as if there is some kind of numerical compensation going on.
At some point excessively long sentences may not serve any purpose except to be numerically proportional to the crime.
If we value our fellow citizens who commit crimes then we should allow them the opportunity to continue to participate in society as quickly as possible. Short jail or prison sentences (of several months) are useful.
Given that we forbid options to make short sentences more unpleasant, an alternative to a numerically longer sentence is to accept our limitation in setting the duration of a sentence.
A possible lesson from history is that our greatest expression of valuing a person is to allow that person a path to a speedy return to living freely in society.
4 thoughts on “Interpreting Crime and Punishment”
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