Criminal punishment – How might this work?

criminal punishmentNearly 75% of those aged over 18 and charged with offences committed during the 2011 English riots, had prior criminal convictions. In some urban neighbourhoods, there had been an intimidating atmosphere from a section of young people who can be aggressive in their demeanour and unafraid of social disapproval. We might wonder whether  the prospect of criminal punishment deters such individuals.

I’m not necessarily talking about all the looters during the recent riots some of whom to my mind were shallow thrill seekers joining in  because they thought they could get away with avoiding criminal punishment. But rather those engaged in  the mob violence, many armed with bricks, who didn’t care too much if they were  caught. Some of these  people were quite prepared to throw heavy slabs through police car windscreens and hurl petrol bombs at officers. This aggression towards the authority of law enforcement suggests a deeply held antagonism to mainstream society by a widespread if small criminal minority who are likely to end up receiving criminal punishment sooner or later.

The attitude of criminal punishment as a just desert

A few commentators have adopted a condemnatory attitude.

“These people are just scum and that’s the end of it. They deserve all the criminal punishment dished out to them.”

And there is a common view that trying to throw light on the riots in terms of social problems is tantamount to excusing individual actions. Social explanations do not erase responsibility of individuals but labelling these people as criminals does not help us understand why they became the way they are. Examining any relevant factors in society is not to justify behaviour but to try to throw some light on it. I would suggest a spiritual attitude is to condemn the behaviour but not the person: it is to look to enhance civil and moral order.

Criminal punishment that allows the drug habit

Is one of the possible social causes of the problem to do with the way society may have failed in its challenge to unacceptable behaviour? In other words, is disorder more likely on our streets because it has not been met with a sufficiently firm, fast and sustained response? It is well known a lot of crime is motivated by a desire to feed a drug habit. And so to the outsider like me it is a bit of a mystery why the problem of drug availability in many of our prisons has not been successfully addressed. According to this way of thinking as people get away with acting badly, social norms about law-abiding behaviour have been weakened.

A charitable attitude to criminal punishment

To my mind, a spiritual approach encourages the kind of punishment for wrong-doing that clarifies to everyone what is right, deters future crime and protects people from harm. I believe this element of social control is entirely in line with a charitable attitude. It is a very different approach to the one that sees punishment as there to make us feel better when criminals get their ‘just deserts’. Arguably, such an un-charitable attitude is counter-productive. Short-term imprisonment has been shown not to work in preventing re-offending. We need to be more creative in developing punishment that does work better. This is not to argue that punishment alone is enough but to suggest it is a crucial part of the mix of the ways disorderly behaviour can be more effectively challenged.

Community sentences as a form of criminal punishment

Offenders have not been obliged to face the consequences of their actions for example by paying back to the communities they have damaged. They need informing about what should happen locally to repair the harm they have caused. This is not a soft option. It is very popular amongst victims and can help those hurt by crime to feel a sense of closure. It is said to reduce the likelihood of re-offending.

Community sentencing as an alternative to imprisonment has not found public confidence. I suspect one reason is it has been seen as a less expensive alternative to locking people up and therefore insufficient resources have been allocated to give it a chance to have some impact.

Restorative justice as a community programme can be combined with various forms of punishment. It is a process requiring skilled facilitation – thus financial investment. Those who advocate it argue that it has the potential to help in the repair of fractured relationships and to foster a sense of responsibility in those who wronged others. I believe it is entirely in line with a psycho-spiritual response to wrong-doing whereby true charity of feeling cannot be divorced from good sense of the understanding in action – the heart, head and hands working together.

Copyright 2011 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

Criminals – Are some people just bad?

You might think some saints and criminals are basically good or bad.
• Mother Teresa devoted her life to the care and service of the poor.

Zacarias Moussaoui

• Zacarias Moussaoui participated in the 9/11 terrorist conspiracy which resulted in the death of 2,996 people, and at least $10 billion in damage.
• Nelson Mandela was a South African anti-apartheid politician and philanthropist who inspired reconciliation and peace
• Al Capone – a ruthless gangster leader – was responsible for planning many acts of violence including the machine-gunning a rival racketeering gang in Chicago.

There are plenty of others who have done notably good or wicked things. Examples are those awarded with war medals for bravely risking their lives for others, serial killers, campaigners for human rights, war criminals, founders of charities serving the poor, sex abusers, whistle-blowers against corruption/malpractice and exploitative people traffickers.

Even if they have some other sides to their character, you may think such people are basically good or bad – full of selfless love or just plain rotten inside.

Natural causes of conduct of criminals

Are such individuals born the way they are? Should we give merit to nature or blame it for their condition? There is some genetic evidence to support the latter view in relation to the behaviour of criminals. Two genes – monoamine oxidase A (dubbed the “warrior gene”) and CDH13 – are both said to be tied to a higher likelihood of violent crime. Research into temperament has discovered that criminals often have high impulsivity, a sensation-seeking trait, aggression and low empathy.

Environmental causes of conduct of criminals

Others argue if you improve the environment of any individual then you can change the person. According to this view if people had not suffered maltreatment as children, come from homes with marital discord, or lacked parental supervision, then perhaps they would have been upstanding citizens. Also had they not had the social and economic disadvantages associated with a high frequency of changing jobs, unemployment and living in places of dense population, then again perhaps they would have been less likely to become criminals.

Legal view of criminals conduct

Our courts assume that we each carry responsibility for our actions and thus are either guilty or not guilty as charged. In other words regardless of their natural disposition and environmental experiences, even bad people can tell right from wrong (unless they are suffering from some serious disorder which prevents them from so-doing) and thus should be held culpable for their personal choices. This way of thinking implies people are neither born so bad nor conditioned to behave so badly that they cannot obey the law.

Mindfulness and our view of criminals

Similarly, the idea that we have responsibility and inner freedom to transcend our natural disposition and social conditioning is central to the spiritual and religious understanding. Religions teach we all have the potential to be inwardly transformed – find self-realisation, achieve enlightenment, become liberated, be saved.

Along with such beliefs is a common religious assumption: that it is a mistake to identify oneself with one’s impulses, urges and desires. They are merely states of mind, distinct from oneself.

So when you view saints and criminals, do you label them as good or bad by identifying them each with their feelings of say love or hate, or do you assume that they are only temporally influenced by humility or egoism?

Our view of ourselves

Likewise, when you see yourself, do you identify with the feelings and thoughts that come and go? ‘You may say yes of course I do. Why shouldn’t I suppose that my own consciousness is not part of myself? They are my feelings aren’t they? My thoughts. My desires.”

Yet one spiritual writer put it this way:

“We say ‘I am angry.’ But you are not angry; you just have angry feelings. You may say, ‘I am depressed.’ No, you are not depressed; you have feelings of depression” (Thomas Keating, Founder of the Centering Prayer movement)

This is very similar to the Buddhist view regarding attachment. Those who advocate mindfulness meditation advocate non-attachment which is the belief that one’s thoughts and feelings are not essential to one’s self but are merely phenomena to be observed. It is identifying with such thoughts and feelings that is said to cause suffering.

Swedenborg’s experience

Swedenborg is known as someone who made an inward journey of discovery, writing up his numerous mystical experiences in meticulous detail. He reports that whilst he was in an altered state of consciousness, he would see and hear spirits of dead people who were associated with him. These he discovered to be the normally unconscious source of his thoughts and feelings.

He wrote that within his mind he had seen and heard certain spirits and felt the anxieties that well up from them. He observed the increase and decrease of anxiety as they drew near and moved away.

He very often experienced being raised up so to speak into the company of good spirits; but if he were to be let go of, even very slightly, he would be exposed to an inflow from bad spirits whose illusory ideas and selfish impulses would flood his consciousness.

So the question arises, if your good and bad thoughts come from outside of yourself, can you ever be said to be a fundamentally good or bad person?

Ruling love

Swedenborg’s answer is to do with his concept of ruling love.

We all are inwardly making personal choices turning towards either higher or lower spirits although we are not conscious of their presence with us. Turning towards the thoughts and feelings of the higher spirits we strengthen their presence within. But turning to the lower ones, we form bad habits of thought such as impure fantasies, self-serving priorities or  spiteful attitudes.

If we are not careful we begin to own lower ways of thinking which can then start to dominate our motivation. We are slowly forming a type of self-centred attitude that takes priority over higher hopes, wishes and sentiments. Criminal intent thus may become the  reigning desire which is the character one gradually forms for oneself.

Copyright 2015 Stephen Russell-Lacy

Author Heart, Head & Hands (

Posted on15th June 2015CategoriesHuman nature, Latest post, Meaning of lifeTags, , , , , ,