23 June, 2005

Worthy of Attention: Taking Stock of Reality: Impugning Punishment

Note: Worthy of Attention was a column that I used to write in the online blog Panangelium.

Impugning Punishment

A couple wakes up from their shared bed in a beautifully decorated hotel-like room with windows over-looking the ocean. As they get up, they check their itenary for the day, which includes a visit to the massage parlor, the gym, a sauna, and a trip to the local museum. As they get ready for the day, they greet their neighbors walking by in the hallway outside their room, check the status of their e-business, and e-mail an application for parole to the parole board.

That's right; believe it or not, this scene is what the majority of prisons in Finland are like.

Thirty years ago, Finland became the first country to completely reverse its policy on handling citizens that broke the law. From its long-standing tradition of harsh punishment aimed at deterring crime dating to when Finland was still an apellate of the former Soviet Union, the people of Finland decided to switch tactics and follow one of the most liberal philosophies of justice in the world today.

In 1975, Finland passed its Sentences Enforcement Act, which stated in part that "the enforcement of sentence must be organized so that the sentence is only loss of liberty", and that "punishment shall be enforced so that it...promotes a prisoner's place in society." In addition, the Act stated that the conditions in prison must be similar to conditions in the rest of society. This dramatic turnaround changed Finland from one of the harshest to one of the most lenient of punitive systems.

But for the Finns, lightening the punishment of being in prison was not enough. They wanted to reduce their prison population dramatically.

So laws were enforced regulating how long offenders could spend in jail. Prisoners may be considered for parole after just fourteen days, and even those who violate parole and return to prison are eligble again after one month. And all first-time offenders are released after serving just half their sentences, with the rest let out after two-thirds.

But even more amazing is their policy of using fines in lieu of prison time. The vast majority of crimes which in the United States would result in a mandatory prison sentence are instead dealt with through a complex fine system which is based upon the offender's income.

In 2002, Anssa Vanjoki was forced to pay a fine of $165,000 -- for a speeding ticket. That's right; a speeding ticket. Doing 74 km/h (46mph) in a 50 km/h (31mph) zone doesn't seem like anything much -- after all, it's only 15 mph over the speed limit. But because Vanjoki is the multi-millionaire Vice President of the Nokia corporation, his fine was scaled to a sum that most would find outrageous. Yet the philosophy behind such scaled fines is one of equity; if a fine is imposed as a penalty, then the penalty should be equal under all who break the law. And whereas a $100 ticket might be a stiff penalty for someone of low income, for a multi-millionaire like Vanjoki, the only way to give a similar penalty is to increase the fine proportionally.

Some critics might think that all of this is nice in theory, but how does this kind of punishment affect the level of crime?

Before Finland's change, the state of the Finland law enforcement and prison system was similar to the St. Petersburg region in Russia. Their populations were similar, their law enforcement systems were simlar, they had similar crime rates, and their prison sentences were about the same. But today, whereas St. Petersburg employs 72,000 police officers, Finland gets by with only 8,500. Russian criminals are more likely to be punished with prison time, and their sentences are consistently far longer. Yet today Finland is much more safe: the murder rate in Russia is ten times that of Finland.

After thirty years of reform, crime rates are down. Repeat offenders are down, even for violent and sexual crimes. Finland's turnaround stance to rehabilitation rather than punishment worked, and the people of Finland are now blessed with one of the lowest rates of crime in the world.

(But please don't think Finland is by any means perfect in its dealings with criminals. Finland has compulsory service of citizens in its army, and has a habit of putting its own citizens in prison if they have conscientous objections to military work and are unwilling to work with any part of the Finnish armed services.)

It would be nice if other countries were to follow the Finns' example. But unfortunately, despite the mounting evidence that lighter punishment and a focus on rehabilitation actually helps to reduce crime, governments (and the people under them) have remained skeptical of such overly scientific theories.
To the Chinese, a common-sense approach of Striking Hard seems to obviously be much more effective, even though no scientific studies agree with the system.

Today, China kills more people than all other countries combined. The death penalty is imposed for murder, bank robbery, and even political corruption. There is no room for appeals; most executions come within days of the verdict.

The Chinese government calls this policy "Strike Hard". The philosophy is one of instilling fear -- those convicted are paraded in the streets before they are shot. And strangely, independent surveys continue to find that a large pecentage of the Chinese population actually supports these practices -- some reports find the approval rating of Strike Hard to be as much as 97%. But, if anything, crime has merely risen since the adoption of the Strike Hard policy.

Yet China is not alone in such practices. The United States has a history of severe punishment, which although psychological instead of physical, still ranks with many of China's unscientific policies.
The philosophy of justice in the United States is one of locking up criminals and forgetting about them.  It is a long-standing policy that has much support from the American people. This philosophy is most easily illustrated in the case of supermax prisons.

Pelican Bay is a supermax is prison on the coast of California. Inmates at Pelican Bay are kept locked in solitary cells for twenty-three hours a day. By law, they are required to receive one hour a day of exercise, but this is done indoors with only a chin-up bar and a track for running, and as always, the prisoner is left alone there. Prisoners never receive eye contact with each other. The only time they have human company is when they are searched for weapons.

Prisoners at Pelican Bay may not participate in work or in furthering education. TV and radios are prohibited. Books are allowed, but only if someone sends them a book -- no libraries are available. Showers are limited to ten minutes three times a week. There are no windows. The lights are left on 24 hours a day.

Misbehaving inmates are sometimes put into 'strip cells', with temperatures left at fifty degrees and only boxer shorts to wear, with no bedding; but if they're really unlucky, they are chained spread-eagle and naked to concrete beds.

Inmates regularly go mad in these prisons.

It should be noted that crime in the United States has continually risen for as long as data has been collected, and at a faster rate than every other industrialized nation except China.

But supermax institutions, as horrible as they may be, do not have much force when spoken of, because we are so very used to the idea. More apalling might be the case of the self-proclaimed "toughest sheriff in America".

Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Phoenix, Arizona, has some pretty old-fashioned ideas of punishment. The jails he runs are specifically designed to break inmates through psychological torture -- but this is not a supermax, where only overly violent offenders are sent; this is the regular, everyday jail that the least offender in Phoenix is sent to when convicted.

Convicts work in chain gangs on the main streets of town, and sleep in tents despite the desert conditions. Recordings of Frank Sinatra are played twenty-four hours a day, and meals are served cold twice a day, consisting of bologna sandwiches day in and day out. Inmates are forced to wear pink underwear, and misbehaving inmates have to don pink handcuffs, too. Yet the cost of running Arpaio's jails are tremendous, costing millions in taxpayer money on settlements in court for overly severe conditions. And the crime rate has risen dramatically since the institution of Arpaio's tough jail policies.
But, to be fair to those who think such tough rules should follow the common-sense idea of lowering crime rates, it is possible that Phoenix's rising crime is more due to Arpaio's mismanagement of law-enforcement funds; recently, he spent massive taxpayer money on a publicity stunt rounding up prostitutes while twelve unsolved execution-style murders in the county remained unworked on the books.

But nothing said so far is quite so impressive as Japan. Japan has by far the lowest imprisonment rate in the developed world, and the lowest crime rate. The rate of armed robberies is a hundredth of the US rate.

The secret is that Japan uses shame as an alternative to jail, much like Finland uses fines. In Japan, for most crimes, one can get out of jail sentence by publicly apologizing to the offended, the offended's family, and the offender's own family. Communities are regularly visited by the local police, with at least two visits to each household twice a year -- not for inspections, but just as a reminder of how important law and order is in the Japanese community.

But when a prisoner does go to prison, conditions are harsh. Short, but harsh. The average sentence is only two years, even including violent crimes; but imprisonment includes such penalties as sitting for a week on one's knees for misbehaving. Leather belts and manacles are common, and inmates are marched for hours in parades around the city, forced to show their face to the society that they wronged.

I will leave you with words of wisdom from one of the most intelligent moral philosopher mathematicians that I know (in short, the closest thing to a hero that I have):
When a man is suffering from an infectious disease, he is a danger to the community, and it is necessary to restrict his liberty of movement. But no one associates any idea of guilt with such a situation. On the contrary, he is an object of commiseration to his friends. Such steps as science recommends are taken to cure him of his disease, and he submits as a rule without reluctance to the curtailment of liberty involved meanwhile. The same method in spirit ought to be shown in the treatment of what is called 'crime'.
- Bertrand Russell
Join me next week as I explore the wonderful world of shit. Yes, you heard me right: shit.

Be well.

(Sources for this article include MCSO.org, Arpaio.com, CNews, Amnesty International, Pelican Bay Prison, The Wall Street Journal, and special thanks to Galafilm's "To Kill or To Cure" for inspiration.)


  1. You make it seem like a change in the justice system alone will drastically reduce the country's crime rate, but it would also require the correct social and legislative mentality, and social maturity. For instance, fines would only work in Finland if there aren't socialist programs to provide money to the poor; or, if there are, that criminals are ineligible to receive their benefits. The same would have to be with health care. This may result in the criminal dying, for perhaps a non-serious crime. This concept could not be realized in the current states of mind in many countries. Social maturity comes in in that it has to be an embarrassment to commit a crime. I'm not sure if implementing the Japanese method in Western societies would work, or just turn out to be a joke. I expect that in Japan a lot more emphasis is placed on social status and professionality.

    I think some of the most meaningful evidence as to Finland's low crime rate has to do not with their justice system, but their societal mentality. This could probably only be observed by physically going to Finland, which I would like to do some time. (Sibelius is a beast.)

    1. Picarpo, you're right. Changing the justice system will not reduce the country's crime rate. Social mentality would also have to change; and as Anonymous noted, changing this society's mentality would indeed be a very hard thing to do.

      Nevertheless, even if the crime rate were not to change at all, it would still be preferable to change the justice system to one of a more permissive sort. Surely, one must recognize that if severe punishment does not make any difference as a deterrent from treating criminals as sick, then it does not affect society negatively to be more permissive -- and it actually improves the lives of convicts. This results in an altogether better world, and hopefully, that is what everyone wants in the end.

  2. Good article. I somewhat agree with picarpo, but I think a lot of the social mentality has to do with the way the gov's structured, including the judicial system. I also think that if we really wanted equality, our government would change (again, including our judicial system), and the media would be a great help. Just showing poverty and some ways in which people can help would (I think) be a great way to help poverty- and in doing do, help reduce the crime rates. This, however, is not a society that wants equality (or even freedom for that matter), we want ego: a big ass tv, McDonalds for dinner, a pool in the back yard, and to drive our comfortable SUV's. Hopefully this will change over time, but greed only grows with power, so who knows.