RULES AND THE PSYCHE: Crime comes in varying degrees of severity and there should be varying degrees of punishment. What bothers me is how society has inadvertently allowed the bar of perceived severity to drop so low that people are going to prison for mistakes that really aren’t all that callous.

Society functions best when citizens adhere to the rule of law and agree to a number of community obligations. A ‘common sense’ – always evolving, always generational – drifts around.

But egalitarianism with regard to mistakes and their punishments wanes, and it is my belief that inadvertently allowing so many actions to be punishable with incarceration has, deep down inside our individual and collective psyches, caused anxiety levels to explode. We are all walking on eggshells coated with Ebola cyanide.

Go to any city in the developed world and look at the staggering number of rules (laws, bylaws, statutes, etc.) governing the actions of society. Most are necessary, but some of them aren’t. Individually, most laws do not have negative side effects. But when the number of rules reaches extreme totals, society should understand that the totality of those rules/punishments do indeed foster negative side effects.

Have you heard of the ‘Broken windows’ theory? To save time, I will just paste something from the Internet because the rack I use for drying clothes just collapsed under the weight of a duvet. I haven’t the foggiest where I put the duct tape.

Prior to the development and implementation of various incivility theories such as broken windows, law enforcement scholars and police tended to focus on serious crime; that is, the major concern was with crimes that were perceived to be the most serious and consequential for the victim, such as rape, robbery, and murder. Wilson and Kelling took a different view. They saw serious crime as the final result of a lengthier chain of events, theorizing that crime emanated from disorder and that if disorder were eliminated, then serious crimes would not occur.

The Broken windows theory is interesting and looks good on paper. However the drawbacks are that poverty and education receive lower priorities, and zero-tolerance advocates garner more attention. The unintended result, in my opinion, has been the increasing severity of punishments for violations that either should not be on the books, or do not require severe punishment.

The pettier the violation, the more severe the punishment because ‘the system’ gets frustrated having to deal with the same petty violation so often, so they end up making punishments harsher simply because they hope that the harsher punishment will compel would be violators to commit the violation less often. I’m pretty sure I recall hearing that the threat of capital punishment does not lower the murder rate. So if that’s true, then why would harsher punishment thwart, for example, jaywalking? What I am saying is that stronger punishment won’t thwart the action of jaywalking, but that the threat itself aggravates our individual and collective psyches.

Furthermore, the sheer number of potential infractions encourages those in positions of power (police, etc.) – as well as the general population – to view everyone potentially guilty of something and thusly deserving of punishment. Even more problematic is that this type of behavior pares nicely with racism, discrimination, etc. If you dislike, for example, homosexuals, you may enjoy punishing them, and knowing that they will be punished severely for their violation, you end up targeting them more often.

I just spent twenty minutes trying to help my daughter find a doll she’d misplaced and I’ve completely lost my train of thought. My daughter is expected at a birthday pool party sooner than later. She certainly does not like getting into her bathing suit without a good temper tantrum (GOD ALMIGHTY!). Another example on how threats of severe punishment do not work and where the actual threat aggravates the anxiety of individual and collective psyches!

Leave a Reply