Punitive and ineffective criminal justice policies find attitudinal support in the belief in free will, the idea that offenders are essentially self-made and therefore deserving of harsh punishments, including death. Changing beliefs about free will can soften punitive attitudes and build support for addressing the actual causes of crime. To change beliefs about free will and build support for criminal justice reform, it is proposed that public education on causality and crime be undertaken by a credible group of multi-disciplinary experts.
The Problem: Punitive and Ineffective Criminal Justice Polices
In the last 30 years, the American criminal justice system has undergone a retrenchment in rehabilitative programs for offenders, reductions in inmate amenities, and a corresponding increase in sanctions such as maximum security units, solitary confinement and physical restraints, and the denial of basic privileges such as exercise, books, and television. Criminal sanctions on juveniles have become more severe, even as juvenile crime has declined. “3 strike” laws have been passed in many states that permit sentences of up to life for simple theft.
The highly punitive prison environment typical in most states has, unsurprisingly, produced a more alienated, unskilled, and violent inmate population with a greater potential for recidivism and re-incarceration. Since many offenders will at some point return to their original neighborhoods, harsh prison policies may ultimately increase violence and insecurity among populations they were ostensibly designed to protect.
During the 80’s and 90’s, voter support of get-tough criminal justice coincided with declining enthusiasm for public programs designed to address unequal opportunities in access to housing, education, job training, child care, and other necessities strongly associated with non-criminal success in life. The vision of a “Great Society” in which government would play a central role in equalizing opportunity has been largely usurped by a narrower, private sector philosophy in which individuals sink or swim in competitive market economies without much government assistance. Efforts to better the lot of those born into disadvantaged circumstances are more likely to be dismissed as paternalistic infringements on a person’s right (and obligation) to be a self-sufficient self-starter instead of praised as altruistic attempts to level the playing field.
Attitudinal Support for Punitive Policies: Belief in Free Will
Driving these trends is the ideology of Western radical individualism, which holds that persons are essentially self-made, and that therefore they deserve, in some deep sense, to pay for their mistakes. Behind this ideology is a widespread if usually unarticulated assumption about causality, namely that human beings are in some crucial respect the uncaused first causes of their behavior. This special capacity is ordinarily called, and thought of as, free will.
The belief in human causal exceptionalism has two significant implications for criminal justice policy.First, since criminality is ultimately up to the individual, then no matter what policies are enacted, criminality will still emerge. On this view, crime ultimately cannot be controlled, so the incentive to undertake interventions is weakened. The belief that individuals’ free will, not particular social and biological conditions, ultimately accounts for crime, relieves us of responsibility for addressing the actual causes of criminality and social dysfunction. Second, since individuals bear originative responsibility for their crimes – they weren’t entirely caused to behave the way they did – they deeply, metaphysically deserve to suffer for their offenses. Such a view understands retribution as an essential component of criminal justice, making capital punishment and harsh prison conditions, including rape, beatings, sensory deprivation, lack of exercise, education, or any civilized amenities, all perfectly justifiable. It is no surprise that retributive justice, combined with the lack of attention to the formative conditions of crime, shows little prospect of substantially improving public safety or reforming offenders.
Solution: Public Education on Causality and Human Behavior
If belief in free will underpins punitive and ineffective criminal justice policies and leads us to ignore criminogenic factors, then dispelling this belief should help foster attitudes supportive of criminal justice reform and social policies that successfully address the causes of crime and recidivism. Once individuals are understood not to be the ultimate, self-originating sources of their behavior, but rather the products of interacting environmental and biological conditions, then retributive motives for punishment will lose their primary justification. As we seek to prevent crime, this naturalistic understanding of the self will shift attention from a narrow focus on the offender to the surroundings which created him. Since punitive criminal justice practices are themselves a major contributor to violent crime and recidivism, changing beliefs about free will to reduce support for such practices becomes a significant component of effective crime prevention.
Because challenging free will poses a threat to traditional, strongly held concepts of human agency, it is likely to trigger resistance in many quarters. Free will is widely thought necessary to ground moral and criminal responsibility, while lack of free will is often associated with such things as fatalism, passivity, loss of personal efficacy, oppressive predictability, and the impossibility of individuality and novelty. Fortunately, work has recently emerged in philosophy, social science, psychology, and criminal justice studies which shows that a naturalistic, causal view of ourselves is not only true, but is compatible with our values and our sense of personal efficacy (e.g., see the Resources page). Some of this work relates directly to criminal justice issues, and some writers have argued that significant policy changes in the light of naturalism are warranted, e.g., ending capital punishment and alleviating unnecessarily harsh prison conditions. The intellectual and empirical groundwork for changing attitudes about free will and criminal justice is, therefore, well begun, although not yet widely known.
Proposal: Council on Crime and Causality
A coordinated campaign of research, publication, and educational outreach is needed to increase public awareness of these developments and thus bring about change in attitudes related to criminal justice and social policy. For a naturalistic, fully causal conception of ourselves to take hold and for its implications to become clear, a credible group of multi-disciplinary experts must champion this conception in the context of criminal justice and related concerns, such as substance abuse, community development, and welfare policy. Although experts in relevant fields are producing significant contributions, there exists no organizational support to coordinate these efforts and maximize their impact, for instance via conferences, joint publications, and policy papers. It is proposed, therefore, to fund a Council on Crime and Causality (CCC) which would:
- recruit experts who take a fully naturalistic view of human behavior and who wish to change criminal justice and related social policies in a less punitive, more effective direction
- coordinate their efforts by means of developing a common agenda with clearly articulated goals related to research, public education, and policy advocacy on naturalism and criminal justice
- fulfill this agenda by means of publications, conferences and other educational outreach efforts, with the result that beliefs about causality and crime become more supportive of criminal justice reform.
Under this proposal the Council would:
- Develop an initial project description for review by potential recruits.
- Review literature to develop list of candidates for recruitment.
- Contact and recruit Council participants.
- Develop consensus statement on Council mission and goals.
- Develop and implement an agenda, e.g., 1, 2, and 5 year plans for research, writing, publication, conferences, and other educational outreach.
- Monitor and report on project implementation, agenda fulfillment, and Council impact on public awareness and policy change.