Archives for posts with tag: crime

While I consider myself to be liberal in attitude, I read a newspaper article today that had me shaking in anger and wishing he utmost evil to befall the perpetrator. The story concerned a violent rape in Dublin, where the rapist threatened to kill the victim’s child if he didn’t get his way. The woman was then raped repeatedly while the young child was abandoned in a public park. The whole story was horrific – the mark of a warped, twisted mind.

My instinctive reaction was to wish we had a death penalty, so he could be done away with.

Circumstances such as these are often difficult for people with liberal or progressive values. Conservative commentators love these stories, because they make liberals seem like idiots. OF COURSE they should be flogged, flayed and scalped, dragged through town by galloping horses, then thrown in a dungeon to suffer a painful and lingering death. What reasonable human wouldn’t condone such a course of action? Surely, taking a different position makes it seem as if you have more sympathy with the perpetrator than with the victim?

Such argumentation is misleading on two counts. It’s a classic case of a false dilemma: if you do not accept the stated position, then you must be a wooly headed liberal, with all the baggage that entails. Can you not be for strong punitive action and yet remain committed to liberal values? Questions like these have no place in such rhetoric. Secondly, it’s a classic straw man – if you exaggerate the liberal position as much as you can, you will make it seem ludicrous. The real liberal position can therefore be safely ignored.

I still wish nothing but evil on those who would enact these crimes. I guess it’s a human reaction. However, I feel that our justice system needs to be as fair and as well designed as it can be. It should allow for mistakes to be corrected. It should not veer towards witch-hunts and “guilty until proven innocent”. Even a small bit of research will expose great difficulties in capital punishment, corporal punishment, revenge punishment and torture. Systems that treat people with impunity are all very well until they reach beyond the confines of the violent psychopaths and into the realm of public misdemeanours. Controls and checks need to be in place. As our societies improve, we need our systems of justice to improve with it.

This doesn’t mean we leave criminals off the hook or ignore the needs of victims and greater society. People need to be protected from those who have the means and intent to do great harm. Some people should not be allowed back into society where there remains a substantial risk to the public, no matter how long they have been incarcerated. Sentencing needs to take victim impacts into account. Harshness where appropriate.

Resorting to the whip, the cane and solitary might seem appropriate in some circumstances, but our understanding of psychology indicates that punishment, as a deterrent and a means of reform, is highly inadequate at best. People can get used to most things given time. Cognitive dissonance acts to minimise culpability, even in the worst situations. Mental illness in prison has its own dynamic, often seeing to it that the punishment and the crime are totally unrelated to each other.

We need a justice system that balances these concerns. We need people to be protected from those who wish us harm. We need for criminals to be rehabilitated, so they don’t pose a threat to others. We need a system of justice that embraces the complex needs of society. What we don’t need are brutal solutions introduced that seemingly make one aspect better, while making everything else worse.

In an article in the Sunday Times today, a number of retired members of the Irish police force (Gardaí) expressed their dissatisfaction with psychics who claim to have information on the whereabouts of missing persons. On numerous occasions, Gardaí have been forced to conduct searches based purely on tip-offs from psychics and clairvoyants. No bodies have ever been found as a result of these types of searches.

“They always say a body is buried near a tree, or in water, or sometimes on a stretch of coast”, said retired assistant commissioner Martin Donnellan. “When nothing is found they’ll say the spirits are sending them the wrong signals”.

“I have never seen one of them provide any information that was worthwhile”, said retired cold-case detective Alan Bailey. “They usually claim the victim came to them in a dream, and asked them to convey a message”.

According to these sources, psychic meddling has become a big problem. Gardaí often waste precious time and resources to conduct searches they know will have no useful outcome. Psychics make contact with families, who in turn put pressure on the police to conduct a search. “In truth”, says Donnellan, “such searches are being conducted to appease families”.

The involvement of one British psychic, Diane Lazarus, was described as “unhelpful and distracting” after she claimed to provide information concerning the murderer of teenager Raonaid Murray in Dublin in 1999.

Psychics have offered their “services” in the cases of Annie McCarrick, Amy Fitzgerald, Mary Boyle, Jo Jo Dullard and Deirdre Jacob, among others. In each case the information provided has lead nowhere, instead creating false hope for the families of the victims. 

If psychics were effective, we would have heard of it by now. Psychic policing would be an active part of crime research and every police force in the world would have a psi-division. There would be abundant, successful peer-reviewed studies available and a history of solved disappearances. Instead, this field of inquiry remains where it’s always been: mired in the realm of science fiction.

Psychic investigators are engaged in a process of deception, always of others and quite often themselves. They waste police time and police resources. They provide false hope. They reopen old wounds, forcing families to re-live the terrible times of the disappearance. Their currency is delusion and the effect, almost always, is misery.

Ideally, psychics should be held financially and legally responsible for every claim they make regarding disappearances or unsolved murders. Like cigarette manufacturers, they should be forced to provide an explicit, official warning in all cases where they provide an input into a crime case, if the only information they have is from a dream, a vision or a claimed supernatural source. All cases where psychics fail to provide useful information needs to be publically registered, so that families can review for themselves how utterly useless their services are.

Until proper evidence is provided to the contrary, it is about time we allowed police to fully engage themselves in modern policing, keeping the delusional practices of psychic investigators where they should remain: in the movie theatre. 

Ireland has been victim to a succession of increasingly violent gang related thuggery in the past 20 years. The crimes committed by these characters, from Martin Cahill, to the Westies, to Marlo Hyland, have been abominable in the extreme. What comes across is a kind of fecklessness: people who simply don’t care about anyone, so long as they can they can load themselves up on drugs and money. This pattern of nihilism is not exclusive to Ireland. The blood baths currently taking place in Mexico put Ireland into the minor leagues.

Religious leaders commonly portray such excesses as being caused by godlessness. These people, they say, have rejected God. They imply that widespread rejection of God will make such anarchy commonplace. It’s a frighteningly effective message, perhaps serving to bolster religious faith despite all the past and ongoing revelations of religious indiscretion.

Let’s put to bed the most glaring and idiotic canard straight away: that godlessness equals immorality, and even criminality. Millions of people around the world live good, honest, normal lives without requiring the services of any god whatsoever. Atheists and agnostics have contributed to the betterment of life, campaigned for the poor and sick, railed against injustice and have pushed forwards the frontiers of knowledge – just like many religious people, in fact. The children of non-religious parents grow up in similar environments to kids in religious families and go on to lead lives with just as much promise. There is no evidence that relatively godless and secular societies, such as Norway, the Netherlands or the UK, are on the brink of collapse or have any interest in throwing out common decency or the rule of law.

A second generalisation is that religious people are more ethical than atheists. The facts suggest that this is far from the case. You only need to look at the work of priests, pastors and bishops in the numerous child-abuse scandals around the world to realise that many religious people, whose theological credentials are impeccable, have a lot to answer for. Religious differences have sparked many a war, and many prominent, god-fearing religious people have been found wanting when the details of their lives are uncovered.

Neither does religion provide people with a “get out of jail free” card. The religion of prison occupants tends to match the wider society where they come from (US – predominantly Christian, Middle East – predominantly Muslim), so if religion is stopping people from committing crimes, it does not appear to be working very well.

Now, some more difficult questions. Are gangs predominantly atheistic, and does this contribute to their criminality? Without knowing the true stats, it is unlikely that many notorious criminals are regular mass-goers, or that they care much for any of the trappings of religion. There may well be a correlation between gang criminality and godlessness. But that is not what is being asserted by many pastors and priests. What they are saying is that their godlessness causes their criminality, a very different question. Is the motivation for criminal acts a defiance against God? Or could it be due to more worldly factors, such as their upbringing, education, access to opportunities, peer pressure and personality? It seems that the right people to answer this questions are trained sociologists, not those who are willing to provide pat answers that simply reinforce their prejudices.

Another question is whether criminals who have found God are better people. There are many cases of violent criminals repenting while in prison. One could readily accept that “finding God” in such circumstances has made a positive improvement in these people’s lives. So too, however, does believing in Allah help Muslim prisoners, while Chinese prisoners become better people by studying the words of Confucius. The circumstances of redemption seem to strongly associated with the culture and location of the redeemed person. Maybe, it’s not so much the nature of the god-figure that’s important at all. What may be far more significant is finding a focus, educating oneself, having a chance to reflect on one’s life, becoming part of a community and the assistance of an authority figure or friend who is willing to go the distance with you. The reasons people turn their lives around may be far more attributable to common human approaches than to a deity whom we wish to attribute the turnaround to.

Religious preachers frighten their congregations into believing that godlessness equates to nihilism and the corruption of society, when the reality is totally different. Religious people and non-religious people alike share the same concerns and worries about criminality. The solutions to crime are grounded in common sense, not divine intervention. It’s time this “godlessness” excuse was thrown out, once and for all.


Whereas the 20th Century dealt with the rise of mass-production, it appears that a big theme of the 21st Century will concern mass-customisation. The basic idea is that the organisations that succeed are those that are best able cater to the multiple specific tastes and whims of different individuals in the most efficient way. 

Current examples of mass-customisation include clothing, footwear, helmets, computers, jewelry and printing. All fairly low-key stuff. It’s possible however that we all could be driving around in custom cars, drinking custom concoctions at the bar – exactly matched to our taste buds, and receiving custom prescription drugs exactly suited to our individual genetic makeup. The possibilities are endless and perhaps a bit frightening if taken to the extreme – custom pets and even custom babies perhaps?

Mass customisation applies not just to products, but also to many services we take for granted. From mobile phone plans to travel to insurance, we already experience a great many options so that we can choose something that best fits our lifestyle. Supermarket loyalty cards are used to generate unique discount plans for each shopper. There is even a trend towards personalisation in education, so that children get an education that is best matched to their innate interests and abilities. Many services, from utilities to postal services to taxation, are wide open to future mass-personalisation. 

So here’s what got me thinking: might mass-customisation help to deal with the problem of criminality? For centuries, the blunt instrument of choice has been the prison sentence. While it no doubt has its merits in some cases, it fails in terms of recidivism rates and ultimately it has not succeeded in making a meaningful dent into crime rates within society. Yes, there are alternatives such as electronic tagging, suspended sentences, barring orders, fines and community service, but even so, prison still remains the number one deterrent.

There is something very Victorian about the concept of prison – it is where someone goes to “learn a lesson” and “pay back their crime to society” – to reform their evil ways, as it were. It all sounds very good, if only it were true. I am deeply skeptical that meaningful reform is possible for most people in a prison environment. It seems to jar with what we know about human psychology. The motivations that put people in jail are so different in each case. It could be poverty, boredom, accident, self-expression, anger or even cold-blooded sadism. To me, prison seems like a “one size fits all” solution that, while effective in some cases, is absolutely useless for many other situations because it fails to take account of individual motivations and values. I sometimes wonder if, 500 years hence, our descendants will look on modern prisons in the same way our current generation recoils from the brutal ways the authorities dealt with miscreants in the sixteenth century.   

Enter the world of personalised and customised sentencing. If we had better information on an individual’s background, genetic, personality and psychological makeup and the means to efficiently design responses to criminal behaviour on a case by case basis, could we come up with more effective solutions, thereby driving crime rates down to nominal levels? The suspicion is that, by gaining a better understanding of what drives individual motivations and how an individual’s behaviour is affected by the environment in which they operate, we might come up with approaches and responses that prevent these behaviours in the future. 

Answers that might emerge could include drugs, implants, educational or psychiatric responses, targeted interventions, and in more serious cases, physical exclusion. Maybe it might just be as simple as specifically targeted drugs, who knows?  

I wonder though, if the means were there to implement it, would society be willing to support it? Even if customised sentencing showed huge drops in criminality, it would still require a big change in thinking. A very large section of society continues to demand longer and harsher prison sentences often as a reaction to the injustice of the original criminal act. Harsher sentences don’t seem to make society any safer. (If this were the case, surely the USA, with its large prison population, would be the safest country in the world). In a mass-customised world, prisoners would be given punishments matched to their psychological makeup and circumstances that would ensure a) that the perpetrator does not re-offend, and b) that the perpetrator understands and regrets their actions. It may not deal so well with a victim’s or society’s desire for revenge. Customised sentencing might mean that the best response for a murder, in one case, is drug therapy, whereas a vandal might require a long-term barring order or deep psychological treatment for something relatively minor.

So, customised sentencing may be both a panacea and a headache. It could offer a world with much less crime, but there are social and ethical issues that will need to be dealt with.

What do you think? Is this a pipe-dream? What other benefits or problems do you see? I’m interested in your views.

We’re meant to be living in an enlightened world. We’re meant to be more educated. We are meant to be more tolerant of other cultures.

So why is it that the most common lunchtime and pub conversations still convey a desire that (travellers, criminals, immigrants, [insert minority group of choice]) be (executed / castrated / locked away and the key thrown away / [insert gruesome ending of choice])?

Seems we haven’t progressed that much after all. 😦

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