Just a buncha Commies!

Why are leftists so soft on crime and so distrustful of the law enforcement agencies that keep us safe from criminals? Don’t victims have rights, too?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

11 thoughts on “Just a buncha Commies!”

  1. Something is very wrong when the Chinese are on the right side of a human rights issue but the anglosphere is running as fast as it can in the opposite direction.

  2. The question, of course, which must be asked when any totalitarian government issues such a rule, is this; Do they mean to actually follow it? Or was it just adopted for PR purposes?

    "Several lawyers said that they were curious to see the extent to which the regulations would be carried out, pointing out that China often fails to abide by its own rules and regulations."


    The late, unlamented USSR had a pretty nifty bill of rights, I hear. Didn't mean anything in practice…

  3. No, victims don't have any [unique] rights. The whole point of our system of justice is that it is vicarious. Society symbolically takes on the injury and the individual victim drops out of the picture. This is necessary in order to rise above the frontier or jungle style of "justice". Of course principle and practice are not quite the same thing.

  4. The question … which must be asked when any totalitarian government issues such a rule, is this…


  5. Frank, that's interesting. Although I'm not sure whether vicariousness need be a part of it. To the extent that the victim is "owed" anything by the criminal, that nebulous claim seems to become even more diffuse and meaningless upon transfer to society.

    I can't help but think that the old tradition of retributive justice is one of the single biggest barriers towards real social progress. As long as we continue thinking that criminals need to be punished as a sort of payback we will continue to depend on incredibly expensive and elaborate schemes that only serve to blur the nature of the original crime.

  6. And the moment we abandon that tradition, the legal system will lose all legitimacy in the eyes of much of the population, who think that punishing wrongdoing IS the point of a legal system, and deterrence/rehabilitation simply a nice benefit if it happens.

  7. Brett is right. I don't believe for a minute that even the most far-left, thug-huggin' hippies out there truly believe that retributive justice should be abandoned when it comes down to it. Consider for example if a pill were to be discovered that had a 100% cure rate for sex offenders. After taking this pill, the recidivism rate was 0% for adjudicated sex offenders. Would anyone step up to advocate that we could now simply send the adjudicated sex offender to the clinic for a pill and then return him on his merry way back home without any jail time or pure punishment? I too often hear this push coming from thinkers on criminal justice issues to embrace a raw form of pragmatism without thinking through the underlying moral implications involved. "As long as we do what works, embrace an evidence-based approach, and reduce recidivism…" they'll say. But sometimes you don't do something because it's particularly effective or expedient. You do it because it is right. Punishing wrong-doing is the right and just thing to do within any society. It may at times serve no instrumental purpose, but it needs to happen. We can argue over it's extent, but shouldn't be arguing over the need for it. For perhaps a more "liberal-friendly" version of retributive justice, I'd recommend checking out concepts of "restorative justice" which are embraced widely in other nations' criminal justice systems (e.g., Australia) and contain elements of both retribution ("shaming") and restoration ("reintegration").

  8. As Bux points out, a lot depends on your definition of retribution. Depending on a perpetrator's belief system and prospects, prison may not, on balance, act as a net retributive experience if it leads to education/conditioning in criminal behavior and recidivism. Here's another hypothetical: What if we had a pill that would not only prevent recidivism but create intense feelings of personal guilt, so that an offender was dogged every minute of the day by the knowledge of the harm they had done and the pain they had caused their victim(s). Would it still be necessary to incarcerate them, or would that be enough? (h/t H.L. Mencken)

  9. Hey, a non-trollish comment from Bux!

    I still disagree with you. There might be a reason to keep the now 100%-cured, 0% recidivist sex offenders in prison. But if there is, we don't need to reach the question whether incarceration should serve a purely retributive purpose (much less the question whether there is any set of moral teachings, as opposed to legal norms, that a secular state should pay attention to and which derives from anything other than fairy-tales or aesthetics). Next to specific deterrence (discouraging the criminal from doing the same thing again), one unquestionably legitimate reason to incarcerate criminals is general deterrence (showing other people why doing what the criminal did would be a bad idea).

    Restorative justice I do find an interesting idea, because rather than paying obeisance to some abstract moral code (whether one that explicitly claims a god as its justification, or one from which the god has faded Cheshire Cat-like, leaving only 10 or however many grinning commandments), it seeks to make the criminal undo, to the extent possible, some of the harm his crime caused the victim (if there was one) and society in general. We can argue all day long about whether moral codes are anything other than a human invention, but there is little debate that people and society do exist. In fact, I'd say the aims of restorative justice are more regenerative and reintegrative than anything else, but if it helps to think of it as retributive as well, knock yourself out.

    Anyway, thanks for a serious and interesting point. Isn't it much more fun this way?

  10. Thanks for the compliment Mrs Tilton but I don't buy your premise that all of the points I make on this blog site are not serious, interesting, and fun. Don't fancy yourself as the arbiter of what is serious and interesting discussion, even if you are reviled by most of what I have to say. Besides, where is the fun when we're all agreeing on things.

  11. I assure you that my ideas on retribution have deeper philosophical origins!

    Brett, it may be true that the public will never go along with it – but that doesn't make it any less correct.

    Bux, if something is right, then we ought to do it. But first we must determine if it is right. You managed to avoid answering that – something isn't right because it is right. Go ahead and acknowledge that you can't answer the question. But that seems all the more reason to ask it.

    I understand your point with the sex offender question, as it solves the practical question but not the retributive one. The problem with it is that it assumes we know the full causes of sex-offenses. Because we don't, we have to accept that it is purely genetic and that all prior behavior can simply be wiped away.

    I think, as Brett was pointing towards, that retribution is a basic human impulse. In our moments of pure reptilian idiocy, we even punish inanimate objects. Have you ever kicked a coffee table after stubbing your toe on it? We see this is punishing wild animals – it may have been perfectly natural for a mountain lion to have attacked a hiker, yet we feel the need to kill it out of pure revenge. We need to "make things right". But when a house is crushed by a falling tree, we don't feel the need to exact revenge. That would be silly, hah! My argument is that the human desire for retribution is no less absurd.

    Now, it may be true that we'll never go along with it. But we've come a long way in our understanding of human nature and crime. We no longer torture. We no longer have public executions. Although many conservatives no doubt experience frustration over this. We will likely always personally feel irrational emotions when the victims of crime. But that isn't the way to structure society.

    Some will argue that retribution serves a practical purpose in that it is therapeutic for the victim. I'd like to see studies on how this might work. How would you determine such a thing? One victim might require a few days imprisonment. Another might never get over it. I imagine that this is a false hope – a way of justifying revenge. But even if it works, it doesn't make it right. What if prison wouldn't work, but an amputation might? Or some old-fashioned torture?

    In the end it still seems mysterious and barbaric. Maybe that's all we are. But I'd like to think we can be better than that.

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