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September/October 1978


Second Thoughts on Crime and Sympathy


Myriam Miedzlan Malinovich


When James Q. Wilson, professor of government at Harvard and author of Thinking About Crime, suggested in a New York Times Magazine article that a short but mandatory prison term for criminals convicted of serious offenses might be an effective way of cutting Our soaring crime rate by at least 20 percent, he was quickly attacked in highly critical letters to the editor by distinguished liberal readers. They were indignant at his apparent lack of sympathy for the perpetrators of crime as human beings who have suffered gross social injustice, and they were convinced that only by changing unjust social and economic conditions can we hope to significantly reduce our crime rate.

At the time, in spite of some rankling doubts, my liberal reflexes led me to agree with Professor Wilson's critics. But of late I find it increasingly difficult to dismiss his suggestions-and not only in terms of cutting our crime rate. I now wonder whether proposals like professor Wilson's, which emphasize moral censure and legal punishment of prisoners, might not, paradoxically, be more effective than liberal sympathy, in helping to bring about those very social reforms to which liberals are committed.

According to recent government statistics, general unemployment in our ghettos stands at 13.8 percent, with teenage unemployment at 38.8 percent. The National Urban League, as well as many community workers, however, suggests that 21 percent and 60 percent, respectively, are far more realistic figures. Either set of statistics represents an intolerable social situation.

In light of the heightened sense of racial and ethnic consciousness amongst minority groups in the past fifteen-odd years, as well as the intensified awareness of social injustice, one might expect political action on the part of the unemployed in the ghetto to grow out of such a critical situation - action which would demand social changes geared toward coping with chronic unemployment and other perennial ghetto problems now intensified by the recession. But practically no such action is taking place. Why? Part of the answer, I believe, can be found in the following descriptions of young blacks' reactions to increased joblessness. Arthur J. Kennedy, Sr., a director of the Mayor's Office of Manpower in St. Louis, states in a Newsweek article: "Just walk down Martin Luther King Drive and you'll see what the kids are doing. It's plain hell around here. They're pushing dope, they're into prostitution, and they're into mugging. It's not because they want to do this, but dammit, there is little left for them to look forward to." And in central Harlem, Louis Rose, who runs the Neighborhood Youth Corps Office, agrees: "Those kids aren't thieves by nature, but what are they going to do if they have no job and nothing to keep them busy?

The attitude here is that it is only natural, only to be expected, that these young people should react to increased joblessness with increased crime. But why is this reaction accepted as the natural one? While criminal activity has been a common enough reaction to social injustice throughout history, there are numerous precedents for political action as well. Doesn't the acceptance of crime as the natural reaction for ghetto youth serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy? Doesn't it encourage the channeling of a potentially strong political force into a dead-end diversion-a diversion which helps political conservatives maintain an outdated economic and social status quo?

It would certainly be naive to think that the moral condemnation of ghetto crime would lead to an automatic release of vast quantities of untapped political energy. Sociological factors, including high drug addiction rates, as well as the assassinations of many outstanding black leaders in the sixties, unquestionably play an important role in the absence of political organization in the ghetto. It is, however, difficult to escape the thought that the implicit moral stamp of approval which has been given to crime in the past decade by those in a position to influence young ghetto people is a significant contributing factor.

Orde Coombs, the black novelist, has for years been pointing out the disastrous effect on Blacks of laxness toward drugs and crime. According to a New York Times article (February 22, 1976), he is now being joined by an increasing number of such black leaders as Coleman Young, the Mayor of Detroit; James Oorman, the black psychiatrist; Carl Holman, president of the National Urban Coalition; and Jesse Jackson, head of Operation Push. They all agree that the condoning of black crime must end. Jackson has recently said: "We must be tough on crime. Handguns ought to leave. Dope pushers must be dealt with severely, and the streets must be made safe for normal citizens."

As early as 1973 Coombs wrote: "We must end crime. . . because our growth as a black nation and our survival in this country depend on the extirpation of this cancer. . . It inhibits our trust in each other, reduces our strings of commonality, breaks down our fledgling thrusts toward unity and robs us of the gains-and there were some-of the sixties. . . We can begin to turn this dreadf~1 tide only if we immediately confront the fact that no matter how discriminatory life is, one's problems cannot be resolved by a stiletto in somebody's chest. And we can stop finding excuses for criminality and not allow it to mask itself by any other name."

What Mr. Coombs has in mind in this last sentence is the idea, promulgated by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, among others, and adopted by many liberals and radicals, that criminal acts committed by members of oppressed groups are in fact political acts, and thus our prisons are filled with political prisoners.

This idea, which some black leaders are beginning to question, has provided the theoretical and moral justification, reflected in the two earlier quotes, for condoning ghetto crime.

During the Attica riots Bobby Seale made the following statement to television and radio reporters: "The Black Panther Party position is that all political prisoners who want to be released to go to non imperialistic countries should be complied with by the New York State government." Seale was clearly referring to all the prisoners involved in the revolt, regardless of the nature of their crime. Huey Newton, in arguing for this inclusion of common criminals in the class of political prisoners, says: "There are the great majority of prisoners who are illegitimate capitalists. These are the unemployables, the blacks, browns, and poor whites who have no choice, no real method of partaking of the good things in life except by ripping off the system. They have no political consciousness, but their attack upon the property system, motivated as it is by the institutionalization of unemployment under capitalism, is in a sense political."

What is overlooked in these flurries of rhetoric is that under close scrutiny the" attack upon the property system" most frequently turns out to be the burglarizing, mugging, raping, or killing of other poor people who are, more often than not, also members of oppressed minority groups. While New York City's Upper East Side, home of Kennedys, Rockefellers, Morgans, and other bastions of "the property system," has, according to police statistics, one of the lowest crime rates in the city,
Harlem, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and many lower-middle-class white neighborhoods have the highest.

The unjustifiable leap that is made by Newton, Seale, and others is from the assertion that prison inmates (an overwhelming number of whom are indeed members of oppressed minority groups) are social victims to the conclusion that the criminal acts they committed were political acts. To say that they are social victims is to say that the ghetto environment that nurtured them was highly conducive to their involvement in criminal activities - an assertion with which it is difficult to take issue. But this is a far cry from saying that their acts were political or that they are political prisoners. Such assertions can only lead to pernicious confusion of the boundaries between genuine political activity and common crime. "These illegitimate capitalists," says Newton, "may have no political consciousness," nor, one might add, is it very likely that they will ever develop any as long as they are being reassured that they "have no choice" and told that their dead-end criminal activities are in fact political acts.

Another factor contributing to this lack of genuine political consciousness, I am now convinced, is the present state of our criminal justice system, which renders crime a viable personal alternative to political action. Plea-bargaining, suspended sentences, and erratic parole politics have become our judiciary way of life. Police officers in large cities regularly try to dissuade mugged or burglarized citizens from even filing complaints on the grounds that, most likely, nothing will be done to the perpetrators even if they are found. Their contention is borne out by statistics of the following kind - in Los Angeles County in 1970 only 27 percent of all convicted robbers with a major prior record were sent to prison! Once again young people are being given the license to vent their anger and frustration through criminal channels.

In his article, Mr. Coombs suggested that punitive measures be sharply increased and systematically applied in order to deter young blacks from crime and the use of drugs. This position - now seconded by quite a few black leaders - runs counter to the liberal view that punishment does not deter. But what is the basis of this view?

An examination of the literature on deterrence reveals that there are no definitive studies indicating that potential criminals cannot to a significant degree be deterred by swiftly and uniformly applied prison sentences. In a 1968 article, Professor Johanes Andenaes, an expert in criminology, writes of deterrence that "research in the field is almost non-existent," and goes on to show why existing research, for example, on the effects of the abolishment of capital punishment in certain states, is far from conclusive, if carefully analyzed.

In the past few years quite a few studies have been undertaken on deterrence. While their results are at this point tentative, it is interesting to note that almost all of them conclude that the certainty of punishment if convicted does" have a significant deterrent effect on crime rates. Much of the recent research has been done by economists, for as Robert Martinson, the CUNY sociologist who is completing a two volume study of prison reform, has pointed out, "criminologists have ignored the central feature (deterrence) of all penal codes since Hammurabi . . ," Professor Martinson attributes this paucity of research to the criminologists' ideological commitment to rehabilitation, which leads them, in the absence of sufficient evidence, to ridicule the very idea of deterrence.

But the idea of deterrence and its concomitant-the idea that we are justified in punishing criminals-have been more than just ridiculed, they have been found morally repugnant by the political left, for a variety of reasons which urgently need to be reexamined. What follows is a brief outline of a few of these reasons and some suggestions as to what might be wrong with them.

Criminals belonging to oppressed groups are political prisoners. If so, it follows that their treatment should be governed by the rules of the 1949 Geneva Convention pertaining to political prisoners. While the Attica prisoners' demands for better prison conditions can be understood on purely humanitarian grounds, their request, seconded by Bobby Seale, that they be released to a non imperialistic country can only be understood in light of the Geneva Convention agreement which states that during conflict, prisoners of war may be delivered to a neutral nation for custody. In such a context any talk of punishment and deterrence is clearly out of place. The question here, as I have already pointed out, is whether convicted criminals, .even if they are members of oppressed groups, can legitimately be considered political prisoners regardless of the nature of their crimes.

Most criminals are social victims and therefore cannot be held responsible for the criminal acts they have committed. They must be helped, that is, rehabilitated, not punished. Since deterrence necessarily involves punishment, it is, so to speak, rotten at the core.

Contemporary psychological and sociological theories have done much to undermine the idea of personal moral responsibility. If one pushes the premise that human behavior is heavily influenced by one's psychological and social environment to its seemingly logical conclusion, then one can easily be led to assert that a fatherless ghetto youth brought up by an absentee working mother, in an environment saturated with drug addicts, pimps, and street crime, can no more be held responsible for his act when he murders, rapes, or robs someone than a rock falling on a person's head in a landslide can be held responsible for killing that person. It would be as absurd to punish him-either as a deterrent or as a form of retribution for his act-as to punish the rock.

The image of the human psyche which prevails here is taken from the psychoanalytic model. Our past, embedded in our unconscious, inexorably drives us to behave in ways that are determined by its needs. From a practical point of view such a driven human being cannot be expected to weigh the possible future consequences of his acts; briefly, he should not be deterred.

From a moral point of view, it is wrong to make him suffer for acts that he is not responsible for.

As is often the case, an overly simplistic interpretation of a complex theory has become the basis for a set of attributes and beliefs which come to constitute the social credo of a particular political group. Freud's discovery of the unconscious was the most innovative and revolutionary part of his theory, so that the tendency has been to focus on the id and neglect the ego and the reality principle which guides it. If we give due attention to the ego (to say nothing of the further complicating role of the superego) which roughly corresponds to the traditional seat of reason and self-control, our image of the human psyche becomes more complex, and we find it difficult to automatically rule out punishment and deterrence from either a moral or a practical point of view. For instead of a monolithic unconscious force driving the criminal to crime, we have a dialectic of the unconscious and the ego, with the ego weighing the practical pros and cons of the envisaged criminal act-a la Bentham. And while this concept is still fraught with difficulties, it does warrant that at the very least we maintain an open mind on the subject. Issues revolving around the problems of free will, determinism, and moral responsibility have preoccupied the minds of philosophers for well over a millennium and are far from resolved by contemporary philosophers or psychologists. A social credo based on a simplistic determinism simply will not do.

Finally, the idea of deterrence is repugnant to many people because it evokes images of penal snake pits - human beings locked in cages like animals. Some critics - Jessica Mitford, for example - have gone so far as to call for the complete abolishment of all prisons, on the grounds that they are degrading and do a very poor job of either reforming or deterring.

Must the alternatives be outmoded nineteenth-century prisons or no prisons at all? While the difficulties in achieving penal reform are not to be underestimated, this is no reason to give up on formulating and working for changes which-unlike the abolishment of all penal institutions-would have a reasonable chance of winning public and governmental approval.

One possibility in this direction might be institutions in which the punitive element would be geared mainly toward inmates making restitutions to the victims of crime through work at minimum wages, most of which would be payable to crime victims and their families, or survivors. Right now crime victims are largely forgotten by all, yet their suffering or loss of life is what our criminal justice system is all about. For the criminal who already does not suffer from an excess of empathy or consideration for others, this forgetfulness is most convenient. Perhaps a prison life geared around a simple reality-the obligation to indemnify crime victims-would be more successful at rehabilitating the prisoner by strengthening his sense of responsibility, and hence his ego and reality-orientation, than present-day psychologically oriented rehabilitation programs which, according to most reports, are monumental failures. Psychotherapy, for example, permits the prisoner to continue his egocentricity by dwelling on the unconscious drives and motivations which lead him to crime-the impact of hi~ actions on others remains secondary. As for the hope that the necessarily limited amount of psychotherapy available under even the best prison conditions will lead to basic changes in his underlying personality, this seems unjustified given the meager success of psychoanalytic treatment under even the best conditions. It may just be easier to strengthen the ego directly by having the prisoner take responsibility for the consequences of his act than to try to do so by bringing the drives of the id under the ego's control by rendering them unconscious.

There has been in recent years an enormous increase in two kinds of crime-homicide in which the victim is unknown to the murderer (in 1974, 34 percent of all New York City homicides were of this kind) and theft committed, not by professionals, but by inexperienced young people. In the absence of definitive data, wouldn't common sense suggest that these crimes, unlike crimes of passion or crimes committed by careful professionals, might lead to deterrence through moral condemnation and legal punishment? If so, isn't there good reason to believe that well-intentioned sympathy for the perpetrators of crime is playing a role both in keeping crime rates intolerably high as well as in preventing those very changes from occurring in the ghetto, which do, in fact, represent the most humane long-range solution to crime. For what real hope is there that ghetto unemployment will be eradicated, that the problems of housing, education, and health will be dealt with adequately, unless large numbers of young ghetto people work toward these goals through effective political means?


Myriam M. Malinovich has taught philosophy at a number of universities, including Rutgers, the City University of New York, Barnard and Columbia. She is also the vice-president of Programs in Public Philosophy.

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