An endless punishment?

March 15, 2001|By Alexander E. Hooke

IF MARYLAND officials implement recently discussed plans, many individuals guilty of sex crimes will complete their sentences and then will be required to enter a psychiatric institution.

This idea invites interminable punishment by reviving efforts to combine the legalization and the medicalization of criminal issues. It offers to protect us from a horrible deed and seek revenge for it. But it could easily compound a horror with further injustice and greater confusion and suffering.

Consider:

First, there is the assumption of a special connection between sex and crime. While sex and crime are reliable sellers for movies and pop songs, specialists in criminal justice often note the arbitrariness in this connection. Other crimes generate considerable damage without any basis in sex.

Indeed, many laws are broken by those who are greedy, jealous, intolerant or just plain ornery. Yet no official proposes that offenders such as the money-hungry executive, suspicious spouse or enraged bigot undergo psychiatric institutionalization after serving their allotted time in prison.

Second, whatever the possible link between sex and crime, it is doubtful coercive medical or psychiatric approaches will help. The notoriety of a Jack the Ripper or 1970s serial killer Ted Bundy is misleading insofar as experts have trouble explaining these individuals. Sure, most tend to be males. Often, and unpredictably, the offender is from one's own family, school, workplace or neighborhood.

In a remarkable study, medical historian Simon Cole shows that sex offenders were called psychopaths in the 1950s. These could include exhibitionists, masturbaters and peeping Toms -- commonplace among today's Internet users.

That today's offenders are called predators is not accidental. By conjuring images of a wild beast, experts imply that the tools of criminal justice are insufficient to calm a fearful citizenry. According to Mr. Cole, however, specialists remain divided on two fundamental issues: an accurate diagnosis and a reliable cure for an offender.

A third problem concerns precedent. Some researchers claim to have found a DRD2 gene that is associated with pathological gamblers. When these gamblers get caught stealing to feed their habits, should prison then become only a holding place until they get proper medical care?

Numerous researchers find a link between testosterone and aggression. This could account not only for the urban violence local television features to entice its audiences, but also the destruction from commuter traffic in neighboring counties. Perhaps the road rage of all those suburbanites hustling around in their SUVs is better controlled not by police but by medical technicians periodically stopping commuters to check if their testosterone levels are dangerously out of whack.

Finally, to further institutionalize a convict who has served his time in prison creates the impression that punishment is no longer guided by a sense of deterrence, retribution or some other distinct end. That is, the state can now punish endlessly.

The possibility of endless suffering is quite different from other possible painful experiences. Most of us dwell on the suffering that seems never to quit: Lingering grief or broken heart, loss of freedom or squelched hopes, missed opportunities or the miseries of others. Endless pain seems excessive, inexplicable and unjustifiable. Some liken it to torture.

So to inflict that kind of pain should worry any people of a democracy. That our country has numerous executions and 2 million prisoners should be alarming enough. We are planting seeds for a culture that consigns any miscreant to endless punishment.

Alexander E. Hooke is a philosophy professor at Villa Julie College in Stevenson.

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