How Do We Correct Bad Behavior?

There are more and more articles and books about the danger to our democracy from Donald Trump and his followers. Bandy X Lee, MD, edited The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump. and recently published another book, Profile of a nation: Trump’s mind, America’s Soul . Is there any sign of hope in our current world? Are humans on a path to self destruction? What do we do about the current threat to reason and rational decision making? When someone breaks society’s rules of civilized conduct, how should they be treated?

Our US constitution was written to “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility,” and “promote the general welfare” for the people of the United States. Human systems of justice use punishment to serve as retribution, rehabilitation, deterrence, and incapacitation. These systems of enforcing community rules have their roots in evolution. Dr. Nathan H. Lents, Professor of Biology, and Dr. Lila Kazemian, Associate Professor of Criminal Justice, have researched and written about the biological and evolutionary underpinnings of human civilized moral and ethical behavior.

Many animal species demonstrate a sense of fairness and equity. They will refuse a reward if it is more than is offered to others. They also enforce rules of social behavior. They will shun a rule violator by temporarily refusing to share food and social contact until the offender has demonstrated remorse and made amends. The goal of punishment seems to be healing of social injury, rehabilitation of the offender and reintegration into the community.

Human justice systems are more varied and are strongly influenced by changing cultural factors. Human cultures have swung between a strong emphasis on punishment and more emphasis on reconciliation and reintegration. The United States tends to emphasize long and severe punishment for retribution and isolation from society, and we have a far greater proportion of our population incarcerated than any other country, except possibly North Korea. For example, we have an incarceration rate 13 times higher per population than Norway and 20 times higher than Nigeria.

Humans can choose whether to promote retribution, rehabilitation, deterrence, or social isolation. Humans differ greatly in what and who they label as deviant. Labeling a behavior as bad leaves the possibility of rehabilitation and deterrence. Labeling a person as bad emphasizes more permanent retribution and social isolation. Punishment in the US for criminal behavior is much longer than in more progressive countries. Some aspects of punishment are perpetual. Labeling a person an “ex-convict” or “felon” makes the person an outsider, alienated from society, and inhibits reintegration. The label can lead to permanent stigmatizing and social restrictions (inability to vote, obtain loans, get a job, work in certain professions, etc.) that make it very difficult to reintegrate into society.

To be most effective, punishment needs to be swift, proportional to the offense, and last only as long as necessary to promote rehabilitation. An offender must demonstrate genuine remorse, make amends, repair any damage as much as possible, and show a desire to reintegrate into the community and follow its rules. Society must allow an offender to atone for the offense and to reintegrate without perpetual punishment or stigma. The emphasis must be on guilt for the offense, not shame for the offender. An offender who never admits responsibility for an offense, never apologizes and never shows a desire to conform to the rules can not be reintegrated. (Of course, this assumes the person who was convicted is actually guilty of the crime. We have many prisoners wrongly convicted who will never apologize for something they did not do.)

Reconciliation details can usually best be worked out and agreed upon in a face-to-face meeting between the offender and the victim in the presence of a third-party official. This process is common among pre-agrarian groups and has been implemented with excellent results through the South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Reconciliation increases empathy, reduces recidivism, helps heal both offender and victim, and allows optimal recovery from a traumatic or destructive event. Retribution and justice programs based on fear and coercion, such as Scared Straight, are not only ineffective in reducing re-offending, they may actually make things worse. Allowing a person to break social rules without any consequences, undermines social order.

Helping American society endorse restorative justice will require major effort. Our deep-seated social attitudes about punishment, retribution, revenge, bigotry, and “othering,” will be challenging to remediate. We must change the idea that restorative justice is “going easy on crime.” We must choose leaders who are compassionate, empathic, knowledgeable, and wise, rather than leaders who are authoritarian, aggressive, bullying, narcissistic, and dehumanizing of others. Although desiring vengeance may be in our nature, so is empathy, forgiveness and the desire to be a cooperative member of a community. We now have strong evidence that those positive characteristics are innate and are even found in our non-human relatives.

Our most recent presidential election was a large step in the right direction. Replacing a dangerous, authoritarian, narcissistic, aggressive bully with a level-headed, empathic, compassionate statesman will help restore civility in our nation. It is now essential to punish and try to rehabilitate all those responsible for the insurrectionist attack on our nation, including Donald Trump. To what extent rehabilitation is possible, remains to be seen. But it must start with offenders taking responsibility, showing remorse, making amends, and committing themselves to the values and principles of our nation. Until that occurs, social isolation in prison is necessary.

While America values diversity of opinion, it cannot tolerate irrational, illogical, inane conspiracy theories in its leaders. As Voltaire said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” We have an extraordinary nation with immense potential, but we must learn to choose great, progressive, humanistic leaders. I expect that President Biden and Vice President Harris will be such leaders.

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