Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Creating criminals

Genetics versus environment? Nature vs. nurture? Why, why, why do people commit violent criminal acts?

A columnist for the Myrtle Beach, South Carolina newspaper named Isaac Bailey recently took on this issue when he interviewed an individual named Tom Clark of the Center for Naturalism. With no further comment from me, here's their q and a:

People such as Stephen Stanko, who was convicted of murder and sexual assault, don't deserve the death penalty because they are a product of their environment and genetic makeup.

That's essentially what Tom Clark of the Center for Naturalism in Somerville, Mass., told me through e-mail after reading about Stanko'strial and the local reaction to it. It's more nuanced than that, though, which is why I wanted to provide him space to explain a belief he says is grounded in solid scientific reasoning and research.

According to the center's Web site, it is a nonprofit "devoted to increasing public awareness of naturalism and its implications for social and personal well-being."

Bailey: Why do you believe Stanko had no control over his actions?

Clark: Stanko had no control over his genetic endowment and his upbringing, the combination of which gradually created his character and propensities for criminal behavior. I think it's incorrect to say Stanko had no control over what he did. Rather, it's that his capacity for conforming his conduct to the law - what we mean by self-control in this context - was severely compromised by various causal factors having to do with his genetics and upbringing. He wasn't completely insane or out of control. Had a police officer been present, he wouldn't have committed his crimes. Yet he lacked enough impulse control, plus had other dysfunctional, antisocial characteristics, for this horrific behavior to occur. All this could be explained if we knew enough about his genetics and life history.

Bailey: I believe things such as genetics and the environment influence behavior but doesn't cause them, meaning it might be harder for someone like Stanko to resist the urge to commit violence but he can choose to resist nonetheless.

Clark: Then you believe, as do most people, that there is this 3rd thing, this uncaused free will independent of genetics and environment, that does cause behavior. But then you have to explain where that will comes from, and what makes it choose the way it does. If you can't answer those questions, you're appealing to a mystery, and if you do answer those questions, you'll see that it all ultimately boils down to environment and heredity as they create the person, since there's nothing besides these that figure in causal explanations, according to science.

The significance of all this for the death penalty, of course, is that if you suppose Stanko has free will, and just chose not to refrain from killing, then he deserves to die, since he's a self-made monster. But if we take the causal story of his character and behavior seriously, we can't suppose that he could have done otherwise.

Bailey: Given that view, what, exactly, should be done with the Stankos of the world, given the crimes they commit?

Clark: If, as I believe, we should be creating a less punitive, less dangerous society, then we want to reinforce nonviolent models of behavior and make inmates better, not worse. Right now, the death penalty and many prisons model the worst sort of behavior imaginable - killings, rape, isolation, degradation - and thus further damage inmates, many of whom will eventually be released, helping to perpetuate the sort of society that's causing crime in the first place. Once we drop the free-will-based, retributive justification for punishment, there are still valid objectives of criminal justice, including public safety, deterrence, rehabilitation, community restoration, and victim restitution.

My recommendation for what we do with Stanko:

To ensure public safety, Stanko should be securely segregated from society.

To help deter others contemplating similar horrific crimes, his sentence should be a minimum of 20 years.

To help rehabilitate him to the [fullest] extent possible, the facility housing him should provide effective, evidence-based programs that teach him social and job skills of the sort he should have had in the first place. Treatment for addiction, mental illness and other behavioral health problems should be provided as well.

For community restoration, his work requirement should be designed to produce some tangible benefit to the communities he terrorized, such as participating in a supervised crew doing clean-up, construction and other necessary work he's capable of doing.

For victim restitution, Stanko should, with proper counseling and guidance, be led to understand just how badly he's damaged his victims' lives and those of the victims' families. He can then be required to apologize directly to his victims and their families, and provide continuing restitution to them in the form of work done on their behalf. All this takes the victims' needs into account, a very important aspect of criminal justice.

Conditions of release: Stanko's release from segregation should be contingent on the determination that he no longer presents a risk to society and that he has fulfilled the obligations of his sentence related to community restoration and victim restitution.

Focusing on Stanko is just part of the solution, assuming we're interested in solutions to crime and not merely on meting out just deserts. You could challenge your readers to reconsider their retributive instincts by visiting www.naturalism.org/criminal.htm, and suggest they address the vital questions of what social conditions create Stanko and others like him, and what can we do to prevent other such human horrors. The basic issue is, what sort of a society do we want to be? A society that executes those unfortunate individuals who are caused to become murderers or a society that addresses those causes?

No comments: