08 December, 2006

Crime and Punishment

Sex offenders are scum. Alright, we can all agree on that one – especially sex offenders who prey on children, potentially leaving them psychologically scarred for life. But then, armed robbers are also scum, the kind of person who will leave his victims physically scarred and maimed for life. And while we’re at it, corporate swindlers are scum too – people who leave thousands of retirees without their superannuation, and thousands of families without an income. In fact, when you think about it, there are some pretty sick and disgusting people in this world.

So why are sex offenders singled out for special, lifelong punishment? Corporate scumbags get a relatively mild slap on the wrist by comparison. Violent scumbags do their time and then they’re free to go. But sex offenders are put on lists, they’re watched and monitored, they’re excluded from certain kinds of employment, even companies that run websites (like Rupert Murdoch’s MySpace) can get access to lists of their names so that they can exclude them from membership.

Well, I can think of a few obvious reasons – we feel more protective of our children (and our womenfolk) than we do of other groups of people, and sex offending has an very high rate of recidivism, so we know they may well do it again. Yet, emotionality aside, are we not maybe underrating the horror and obscenity of other classes of crime by focusing on sex offenders?

If a young bank teller is left brain-damaged or quadriplegic for life because an armed thug shoots her in the course of a robbery, isn’t that pretty bad too? Is it alright for this guy to live where he likes without telling the police but not the sex offender? Why is that? Or what about the millionaire – or billionaire – scumbag who rips off his company’s pension fund leaving thousands of poor workers to an uncertain old age, or fattens up his bank account in series of dodgy deals that mean his company collapses, throwing thousands out of work, leaving all those families, all those children, with not enough to live on? We don’t make evil men like these report to the police even after they’ve served their time (if they ever do serve time). We don’t publish lists of their names for any company who wants them so that they can be excluded and further punished.

Why not? Why are some hideous crimes with huge costs in human suffering a reason for lifetime stigma and punishment while others are not? Is it some kind of religious hangover from the good old days? Sex is evil and people who do sex are animals so sex crimes should be punished more than other crimes? Or maybe it’s the other way around. People who commit violent crimes are sort of like the warriors and heroes we have been taught to admire in other contexts, so they shouldn’t be punished as much as they really deserve? People who commit frauds and other ‘white collar’ crimes are really just entrepreneurs who took it a bit too far – it’s almost not a crime at all?

As you can see, I haven’t quite put my finger on it yet but there is something very wrong about the way we look at all this. It’s always unsettling when a society sanctions indefinite punishment and endorses lifelong persecution – even of scumbags – but it’s somehow worse when it is only certain groups who are picked out for this treatment and not others who seem equally deserving. It makes me wonder if we’re being manipulated by some vested interest somewhere.


xman said...

Hi Graham,

I think you are going to disagree vehemently :-), but from a spiritual point of view, many believe sex has special significance, not just being a physical but also a spiritual act, and therefore carrying a deeper level of damage to the whole person , especially children, than purely physical damage. Maybe thats the reason, I don't know officially, but to add to your point which is well made, what about the soldier who comes back from a questionable war of opportunity with limbs missing, who then is the scumbag.. The government that sent him or the enemy that injured him?

I saw the movie Blood Diamond last night - very powerful in its portrayal of the lack of regard for human life in Sierra Leone not so long ago..

graywave said...

Hi xman, if by 'spiritually' you mean 'psychologically' or 'emotionally' then you are probably right. It's still arguable whether a guy who loses both legs in a war is more emotionally scarred than a woman who has been raped - but I take your point. With abused children, of course, there is the element of misplaced trust and lost innocence - but maybe that's there too in the relationship between the soldier and his government - or the employee and his swindling employer?

As for the questionable war or opportunity scenario, well, my vote goes to the government.

Nver seen Blood Diamond. I'll put it on my list.

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