The vexed question of what to do with convicted criminals


Should crims really stay banged-up longer for their transgressions? We, the voters, have repeatedly said that we want them shut away for longer periods but when I lean towards tougher punishments two things bother me. First: I have always shuddered at the very idea of imprisoning offenders who have not physically harmed anybody and are unlikely to. Why do we lock up embezzlers, fraudsters, bigamists, white collar criminals, or robbers of intellectual property? If they aren't the kind of people who serially kill, chop up their neighbours’ faces or rape why on earth do we put them in prison? They'd serve much better sentences working off their crimes and paying back society by earning money, under supervision, most of which could go into the public coffers.

I wouldn't mind betting that the non-threatening criminal fraternity could, by the sweat of their brows or the machinations of their brains, actually generate sufficient income to pay for the costly incarceration of their violent colleagues: there's a thought for the Corrections Department.

Secondly, and much more importantly, I can't escape the feeling that every time a youth rapes an 80-year-old woman, or a bunch of teenagers invades a home and beats up its occupants for an ipod and the contents of a piggy bank, society— that's you and I—has failed.

I can remember a time when violent crime was so amazingly unusual that if one occurred it took up the front page of the national newspapers for days on end. So what has changed in a lifetime? We've copped out, that’s what. The majority has failed to control the minority and we're in such a sea of politically correct tiptoeing through individuals' 'rights' that we now opt for the criminal rather than the victim.

Criminality starts in the family and grows in the schoolroom. From life's outset, parents have got to be tough on their children when it comes to right and wrong, honesty and respect for neighbours. Before the little ones ever reach kindy or school they have to know that teachers are to be respected. Thereafter those teachers must be given the teeth, by parents' consent and legal permission, to exert their authority. Tolerance of transgression at the nascence of discrimination (four or five years of age?) should be zero, and reinforcement of that regime should never be negative. Punishment should fit the crime so that the offender is left in no doubt of his or her place in a strict but compassionate society.

Above all, work should be found for everybody of working age, even if that means making able-bodied people work on government schemes which they might not like. (Take this from a man who spent two reluctant years in the armed forces and only afterwards learned how valuable it was.)

Work is important not only because it produces wages and, one hopes, job satisfaction but also because it is an absorption; people who do a hard day's work find themselves so tired at the end of the day that they have neither the energy nor the inclination to do over a warehouse or mug a fellow citizen.

Sure, there will always be the criminals who kill and maim for the pleasure of it. We'll never get rid of them; they're sick of mind. But, my way, they'll be easier to find and one suspects that there are really so few of them that we could afford to lock 'em up and, as they say, throw away the key.

Comments (10)

by Christopher on March 19, 2009

First: I have always shuddered at the very idea of imprisoning offenders who have not physically harmed anybody and are unlikely to. Why do we lock up embezzlers, fraudsters, bigamists, white collar criminals, or robbers of intellectual property?

I suspect that the victims of these people may have a different view on this matter; how often do we hear that someone feels 'violated' when a robbery occurs (a non-physically harming crime)?

This should give us a clue as to how victims of fraudsters, bigamists, white collar criminals etc feel - just as violated as those who have been physically harmed and I think it's a matter of trust. The trust was violated, in much the same way as the trust of a person who was beaten is.


by Don Donovan on March 19, 2009
Don Donovan

Christopher. Point taken, but why not humiliate non-physical offenders by naming them, shaming them and then making them work to pay back both society and their victims?

by william blake on March 19, 2009
william blake

At my workplace we had a PD gang doing weed clearing and replanting. Interestingly not one of them could be described as white collar.

Recently a small metal plaque was installed recognising and comemmorating the work they had done. Apparently everybody involved felt that it was a great achievment. I have no idea about recividism amongst this group but I imagine it is no more than usual.

Everybody knew who the guys were, providing Cristopher with a degree of the humiliation would like and reminding us all to make certain our cars were locked.

So I agree; having hard work with achievable productive goals is a healthy alternative to incarceration but as for the white collar swindlers, con artists and stockbrokers; its traditional to put them on a boat and send them to Australia.

by BeShakey on March 19, 2009

This sounds uncomfortably like homespun wisdom dressed up as fact.  Do you have any evidence that humiliating people reduces recidivism (contrary to the evidence that, as far as youth conferences go, humiliating the offender is negatively corresponded with recidivism)?  Or that the real reason that children from disfunctional families are more likely to offend is that they weren't told to respect teachers, rather than, for instance, they were sexually and/or physically abused at every opportunity? 

I'll support you on the idea that its time to have a rethink of why we lock people away and whether that achieves what we, as a society want, but the idea that redemption comes through physical labour is a (very) distant memory as far as both practice and evidence goes.

One of the fundamental problems with our criminal justice system is that it is based very much on the hunches and intuitions the public have about what might work.  Your article just takes it in a different direction, rather than setting aside prejudices and looking for what works.

by Tim Watkin on March 19, 2009
Tim Watkin

My problem is the underlying assumption that a physical crime is worse than a monetary one. I could be harmed more by theft than by assault and the thief may be just as 'sick of mind' as they violent man. I'd rather be thumped than have someone embezzle my life savings, so why should we deny liberty to one and not the other?

If you say, 'because they can re-pay society', well, why can't the physical offender to that too? A hard working labourer could earn a fair bit of money for Corrections as well.

If your answer to that is about public safety, I'd say again that financial harm can be just as bad as physical harm. I'm just as worried about an embezzler re-offending and the risk he/she presents to society as I am about someone who commits assault.

There's also a class implication. The well-educated and well-off commit more fraud and we risk creating a two-tier system.

As it stands we reflect how we perceive the severity of the crime by the length of the sentence. Isn't that sufficient?

by Don Donovan on March 20, 2009
Don Donovan

Threads have thrown up aspects of my argument that were not part of it. I don’t recall mentioning recidivism or redemption. My points were simple: lock up those criminals who potentially threaten our physical safety (you know, the ones who go out killing and bashing even when some wet judge has given them bail), and put to useful work those who offer no potential physical threat.

To imprison somebody who has embezzled you is to exact revenge, to retaliate. (You’d get a red card if you did that in a rugby match!). You’d be better off if he/she was earning money, under close supervision, to pay off the financial debt to you and society.

I do not assume that a physical crime is worse that a monetary one; I suggest that they might be treated differently in an effort, in the latter case, not only to repay debt but also to ameliorate the cost of incarceration.

Class? Fraud ranges across all ‘classes’, from large sum embezzlement to benefit fraud. Regardless of the numbers the underlying intention is the same.

by BeShakey on March 20, 2009

"To imprison somebody who has embezzled you is to exact revenge, to retaliate"

And that is one of the reasons I suggested we, as a country, need a debate on what the purpose of prison.  While I'm sure that some would agree with you, others would strongly disagree and argue instead that prison is about either isolating people who are a danger to society, or about attempting to rehabilitate people so they commit no further crimes if released.  Of course these aren't independent either and many people will argue that prison should serve some combination of these or other objectives. 

If anything I think your article is an effective attack on your premise, if prison is really all about punishment, then of course we could punish people in ways that serves other purposes too.  For instance through punishment that makes us money or simply entertains us (The Running Man for instance).  Fortunately I suspect most people, even those that think prison should have some punitive role, would reject this.

by Ian Morrison on August 22, 2009
Ian Morrison


I have some sympathy with your argument. Retribution, deterence and rehabilitation are all less important than keeping society safe.  Corrections policy should reflect this.

But whilst there is a case for banging up habitual violent offenders for good, there is also a case for throwing rehabilitative resources (including therapy, anger management courses etc.) at first offenders from the moment they become guests of Her Majesty.

My understanding is that this doesn't happen at the moment and that such resources are only made available to the hard nuts who've already served a large part of their sentences.


by Roger Brooking on December 28, 2009
Roger Brooking

Ian Morrison writes: My understanding is that this doesn't happen at the moment and that such resources are only made available to the hard nuts who've already served a large part of their sentences.

You're quite right. In order to be eligible to attend a rehabilitation programme,  offenders have to have been given a minimum sentence of two years and be rated at "high risk" of re-offending on release. Only about 15% of prison inmates meet these criteria.

The vast majority of people sent to prison never attend any rehabilitaion programmes at all. Why? Because the Corrections department spends only 3% of its $1 billion annual budget on rehabilitation.

Roger Brooking, Clinical Manager ADAC Ltd,

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