Beyond Retribution

Why mere punishment won't get us very far in the war on crime.

If you’re a friend or relative of a homicide victim, the last thing you want to hear about is the killer’s tale of woe. Yes, he probably grew up in a rough neighborhood, but didn’t he choose to pull the trigger? Outraged and hurt, it’s retribution, not understanding, that might be your top priority.

In a recent Massachusetts murder case, Suffolk Superior Court Judge Thomas Connolly offered the perfect rationale for retribution, saying of the two convicted killers that “It’s a tragedy. Their lives are over. But that is what they brought upon themselves and the people that love them, their mothers and fathers.” Retribution wants as its target the self-made monster who incubated evil by making choices ultimately untraceable to outside circumstances. Having created themselves, gangsters and thugs deeply deserve what’s coming to them.

But despite the emotional imperative of the retributive impulse, the judge’s story about his unfortunate charges simply doesn’t hold up. No one sets out to become a killer; no one voluntarily chooses to warp his own character. The story behind evil-doers isn’t that they bring it on themselves, it’s about the gradual shaping of the criminal mind by family, peers, community and other situational factors. Had you been exposed to those conditions, you too might have murdered someone.

The usual response is that most people raised in tough circumstances don’t become killers. Doesn’t that prove we all have the power to resist corrupting influences, and that those who don’t are therefore ultimately to blame for who they become?

No. The fact that those who kill are the exception, not the rule, is a matter of the specific, particularly damaging conditions they were exposed to – bad or absent parents, violent neighborhoods, poor nutrition, little education – perhaps combined with a genetically acquired impulse control disorder. Yes, they made bad choices, but those choices are a function of a host of interacting causes, not the result of some mysterious capacity for malign self-origination. Psychologist Phil Zimbardo tells the compelling story of why some good people turn bad in his best-selling book, The Lucifer Effect, and a blog at Harvard Law School, The Situationist, specializes in drawing attention to the environmental determinants of behavior.

Sadly, even some very thoughtful people sometimes deny the causal connection between circumstances and behavior.  In Monsters in our schools, columnist James Carroll makes the fallacious argument critiqued above (emphasis added):

One hears it said that every monster is someone to whom, at some point in the past, something monstrous was done. Because it affirms a principle of order, however perverse, the idea has appeal, and may be discernibly true in some instances.

The Colorado shooter, Duane Morrison, left behind a letter making an explicit connection to his sufferings as a child. But it is wrong to draw a causal link between a person's former experience of victimhood and his subsequent role as a victimizer.

This is most obviously so because the majority of victims, across a range of horrors, do not go on to inflict like suffering on others. Those who have encountered life's vicissitudes, even when inflicted out of cruelty or malice, are at least as likely to be marked by special magnanimity as by callous self-centeredness.

Here Carroll, riven as he later admits by anger and sadness, discounts causality, implying that those who end up “monsters” are in some sense self-caused and could simply have chosen to be otherwise. His retributive emotions prevent the rational appreciation of cause and effect, which in turn reinforces the idea of self-causation, creating a vicious circle of demonization. In his attack on the "abuse excuse" Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz commits the same error.

That there is a cause and effect explanation of criminals is not of course to condone wrong-doing, or let wrong-doers off the hook. We need not cling to the myth of the self-made monster to justify the detention of dangerous individuals. After all, murder remains a horrible transgression, communities must be kept safe, and potential offenders must know there are consequences for hurtful acts.

But crucially, dispelling the myth that offenders “bring it on themselves” draws attention to what actually creates criminals. Understanding the situational causes, we’ll be more likely to fund community restoration, economic development, job training, better schools, after school programs and parenting classes – what we might call preventive habilitation. Instead of making prisons living hell to give inmates their just deserts, we’ll provide research-validated training in life and job skills – what they should have had in the first place – so they return to their communities not as threats, but assets. Such non-retributive strategies are the only sure and lasting cure for our current epidemic of violence.

To accept that killers are fully caused not only induces us to get smart on crime, but to become morally better ourselves. It’s far more difficult to succumb to the all-consuming and corrosive desire for retribution once we admit that the “monster” in court is not self-made, but the creation of a community in which we participate. To see that we’re all to some extent responsible for crime, and for its eradication, is the route to more compassionate and effective criminal justice policies.

TWC,  May 2007