the new ussr illustrated

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discipline and punish

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There’s a tendency in certain countries to treat a juvenile as an adult when she or he commits a crime considered ‘heinous’, as if the nature of the act somehow constitutes evidence of maturity, though we know that this is not necessarily so. A child can easily kill another child, or an adult, or adults, if the requisite weaponry is to hand. We know that a sixteen-year-old isn’t sufficiently mentally developed to be treated as an adult – otherwise she’d be permitted to vote, to drive a car (without P plates), to drink alcohol, to watch R rated films, to travel overseas without parental permission and so on. Yet when such a person commits a crime that seems to us particularly unpalatable, with significant victim impact, we appear to let that impact affect our judgment as to the responsibility of the perpetrator. This, I think, is a serious problem.

It’s particularly a problem in overly punitive states, such as the USA, with its frightening prison statistics, and its vast swathes of the population living in a kind of anarchic, dysfunctional, hopeless poverty. Some of these people experience almost their first taste of discipline in a courtroom, where they find themselves the playthings of a system impossible to comprehend, speaking an opaque language, operating with such an indifferent forcefulness as to render its subjects inert and fatalistic.

I don’t have a solution to the problem, I simply observe and feel the unfairness deep under the skin, but as I’ve said before in other contexts, don’t get angry, get educated, and that means informing yourself, where possible, of the causes of this perversion of what most reasonable people would see as the proper treatment of juveniles as individuals with diminished responsibility.

First, there are claims of a rise in juvenile offences in the USA from the nineties, but this is not substantiated, and even if it was true, incarceration would seem more an evasion of the problem than a solution. Second, there is a general rise, again in the USA, in punitive approaches to criminal behaviour, moving away from long-term, more humane trends which first emerged back in the seventeenth century and which were bolstered by the eighteenth century Enlightenment. We can see this in the restoration of capital punishment but also in increased length of sentences. The USA is the only country on the planet that permits life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders.

But this, of course, is exactly the question I’m asking. Why has the US criminal justice system turned its back on humane approaches to crime and punishment? Is it merely reacting to public pressure, and if so, why is there this public pressure? Is it a response to real increases in crime, or to a mere perception of such an increase? My limited research tells me that there is no great surge in the US crime stats, but those in favour of tough sentencing and treating juveniles as adults might well argue that it’s because of the tough sentencing that crime stats are being kept low. So rather than wading into the statistical morass engendered by such arguments, I’d prefer to look at a more obvious and clear-cut connection – that dysfunction and deprivation are profoundly associated with criminal activity as well as drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence and the like.

I’m now going to make a seemingly bizarre leap from crime and drug-taking in dysfunctional and deprived areas of the USA to the choices made by laboratory rats. In The lab rat chronicles, Kelly Lambert describes experiments done with lab rats some decades ago, experiments that should have garnered far more attention than they did. Individually caged rats will increase their consumption of a drug when they can self-administer it by pressing a lever, and they’ll show clear signs of withdrawal when the drug is taken off the menu. In other experiments, rats were given the choice of water, sugar water and water laced with morphine or cocaine. They drank more of the drug-laced water than of the other choices. When injected with a drug in a particular environment, and with a saline solution in another environment, they consistently chose to be in the ‘drug’ environment, when subsequently asked to choose.

These are fascinating experiments suggesting that rats, like us, are drawn very much to drug-induced states. Right? Well, actually it’s more complicated than that, and these are not the experiments Lambert wants to draw our attention to.

The experiments I’m referring to were carried out by Bruce Alexander and colleagues in the early eighties. Alexander was interested in exploring the difference between the responses of lab rats, who generally lived in deprived, unstimulating and most likely stressful conditions, much like the inmates of a prison, and their wild and free relatives. So he created a rich, colourful and varied rat environment with lots of opportunities for the rats to entertain themselves, and each other, because they inhabited the much expanded space (some 200 times that of a standard rat cage) in groups of sixteen or more. When the drug experiments were repeated with these more socially active and choice-enriched rats, the results were very different. These rats were considerably less interested in the drugs on offer. As Lambert points out, it’s noticeable that rates of  addiction to drugs in prison are far higher than outside, in spite of all the obvious difficulties in obtaining them.

The fact that these important experimental results have been largely ignored in favour of exploring, in rats and in humans, the neural processes implicated in drug addiction, perhaps provides a clue to the imprisonment problem in the USA. Finding the neural pathways for drug addiction, and finding ways to block those pathways, assuming that it would ever turn out to be a simple process, would make the problem ‘go away’. No drug addiction, or no drug effect which would encourage the user to keep returning to the drug, means no problem, right?  You just ‘innoculate’ the drug user with the ‘drug blocker’ and she’s no longer an addict, and you go and collect your Nobel. It’s a bit like incarcerating everyone who commits a major crime – you make them ‘go away’. Far easier than trying to transform them by creating a whole new environment for them, full of stimulating activities, community supports, and roles and functions to tap into.

So when you look at the incarceration rates in different parts of the USA, and among different sub-groups, note how they correspond to regions and populations of deprivation and dislocation and systemic poverty. It’s not rocket science, but the real solutions are costly, and they require the kind of collective action that the USA, of all nations, is least capable of. Meanwhile, the USA is the only nation on the planet where, having committed a major crime as a juvenile, you can be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. That’ll learn em.


Written by stewart henderson

June 8, 2013 at 10:56 pm

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