Discounting Crime? How Punishment Has Changed Through the Ages

From medieval torture methods to today’s discussions surrounding the death penalty, how we punish crimes has changed dramatically. Now, we are at another shift in the punishment system. This time, we are taking into account justice, blame and moral justice to decide on  how to punish criminals.

Take Sweden as an example. “Prison is not punishment in Sweden. We get people into better shape,” said Nils Oeberg, Director-General of the Swedish Justice Department. The new Swedish model for prison focuses on dramatically rehabilitating criminals to help them re-enter society. This new system comes at a higher cost but has led to a 40% drop in reoffense rates. Now, the Swedish reoffense rate is half that of other OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) nations.

The Swedish system still has the loss of freedom as the punishment but the idea behind it has changed. “The implication in the Swedish model is that sentenced individuals are still primarily regarded as people with needs, to be assisted and helped.” Now, the focus has shifted so offenders are viewed as humans not just criminals.

Beforehand, society felt criminals deserved misery and torture for their crimes and treated them with little humanity. The view was that criminals willingly chose to commit crimes so they were morally responsible for their actions. Because of this, they deserved to suffer. But, since then, society has moved away from this view. Instead of using torture or deprivation as forms of punishment, we use humane-but-unpleasant prison systems. Now, judges and juries decide on the offender’s moral agency and hold them accountable for their actions.

How do we, as a society, decide how much moral agency to assign to a person and their actions? In War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy describes the spectrum of moral agency that emerged during the Enlightenment. He said that when we know about the “why” behind someone’s action then we assign less moral agency to the action.

Moral agency can be applied to both vices and virtuous deeds. If someone is an alcoholic they might be scorned. If that alcoholic had alcoholic parents, grew up in poverty/pain and had lost a family member then the alcoholic has less moral agency and can be viewed in a sympathetic light. Similarly, we give the entrepreneur less credit if they’ve grown up wealthy with a private education and a seed fund from their parents. Nurture plays a large role in determining the individual’s moral agency for their actions. Because of this, both of these people’s moral agency gets partially discounted as we learn more about their circumstances.

What about nature, aka genetics? For virtue, how much moral agency should be discounted if a person has a higher IQ? Or, how much moral agency does a mentally ill person have if they commit a crime? When does moral discounting come into play for people with illnesses such as sadism, narcissism, and sociopathy?

Returning to the Swedish prison model, do some people deserve punishment for hurting others? Are people so driven by nature and nurture that they have no moral agency? Are they simply people in need of help? And, do we need to apply the same amount of moral discounting to virtuous behavior --whether it’s traditional success or simply kindness--that we apply to vices?

In the end, we do we draw the line between external influences and independent decision-making? And, if we don’t draw a line, does anyone truly deserve to have a different outcome than anyone else, no matter their behavior?

It’s a difficult, philosophical question, but an important one. I look forward to everyone’s thoughts.