Sunday, September 26, 2010

On Law and Order

Athabasca Falls celebrates its ten millionth birthday, possibly.

Our federal government is taking “law and order” steps in the interest of public safety that will probably require the construction of new--and the expansion of older--prisons and penitentiaries. No doubt, they’re responding to that impulse with which most of us grow up, namely that the way to deal with deviance is to make the consequences severe enough to deter potential offenders.

There’s some logic to that; if the penalty for speeding were to be changed from a fine to a prison term, I would probably keep a closer eye on my speedometer. On the other hand, states that maintain the death penalty are still obliged to execute people regularly and California with its “three strikes, you’re out” policy has jails bursting at the seams and little else to show for it’s get-tough stance. At least that’s what one study shows. Another shows that it has made a remarkable difference in safety, largely because fewer repeat offenders are on the streets.

In the Ancient Middle East, harsh penalties were the rule. A creditor, for instance, could enslave the child of a debtor, but if he abused that child to the point of death, his own son would be executed. Adultery was punishable by stoning the adulterers to death. In parts of the world today, amputations and executions are still the prescribed penalty for transgressions like homosexuality, theft or apostasy.

What teacher or parent hasn’t wrestled with the question of discipline through punishment? A large segment of the population lamented the discontinuance of “the strap” in schools, maintaining that it had a place in the correction of deviant behaviour. To a teacher or parent at wit’s end over the unruly behaviour of students or offspring, the application of corporal punishment will undoubtedly always spring to mind. Lashing out is a visceral consequence of rage and frustration.

There is, of course, a vast range of possibilities in the application of punishment as a corrective measure with the deliberate inflicting of pain and suffering at the one end and the curtailment of privileges at the other. There’s an enormous difference between enduring a public lashing and being obliged to observe a curfew for a certain period of time. Even if we believe that sparing the rod spoils the child, our thinking about the subject shouldn’t end there.

We “candy-assed liberals,” of course, preach prevention and rehabilitation as the primary defences against deviance. If we’re correct in saying that offences against society are bred in the unjust realities of discrimination, prejudice and poverty, then we should be taking a much greater exception to the government’s determination to change the world through harsher punishment. The voices of retribution are screaming out their message; the voices of reconciliation are silent, or at best, whimpering.

Where is the Plan B?

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