There was a time when offenders were held more responsible for their actions. Classical Theory of Criminology indicates that human beings are rational calculators. The potential benefit of an act must outweigh potential consequences. We constantly assess if a given choice is worth pursuing. Classical theory states that criminal behavior is the result of misguided and misused free will (n.a., n.d.) Criminals rob rape and kill others because it is what they choose to do. Contemporary criminology largely ascribes to Positivist theory- what is considered a more enlightened view. Positivist theory states that offenders commit predatory acts due to irresistible internal and external pressures. Due to a complex mix of psychological, biological, sociological, political and economic factors, people engage in criminal activity (Oxford Index, 2014). These factors certainly play a role in criminality, but when this model is employed exclusively, in a reductionist manner, it leads to the contemporary academic view of criminals which has filtered into the national consciousness through the liberal media: They are minimally responsible for their actions. It is a weak economy, limited opportunity, addiction, and a hard childhood that is the core of criminal behavior. This thinking absolves offenders of responsibility.
Criminals and sympathy:
Criminals are extremely good at making others feel sorry for them. It is one of the things they do best, as a way to deflect responsibility for their actions, and to lessen their punishment (Barnhart, 2009; Elliot, 2006). The media overlooks the victim, and expresses sorrow for the criminals, second guesses and judges the actions of police officers, and the public eagerly consumes this distorted view of reality. If you have never been victimized, it is very easy to hold high ideals about how offenders can’t help being offenders, how they are products of their environment, how they are the victims of a corrupt legal system, or a brutal militarized police force, or they are wrongfully accused. There is a grim joke about the definition of a conservative: Paraphrasing, they were a liberal who got mugged, assaulted, robbed or raped (Brainy Quote, 2015). Personal experience with criminal victimization or otherwise seeing these predators up close and personal may give one a very different point of view.
Some of the people closest to the offender have the most trouble seeing this. Most offenders have someone who loves them. But you can love someone and hold them responsible at the same time. You can feel badly for someone that they made terrible choices which hurt others, but still hold them accountable. It is a big leap to excuse someone’s crime because you feel sorry for them. This is not doing their next victim any good, nor is it helping the offender, as excusing their behavior gives them permission to proceed with future criminal acts.
One thing that habitual violent, predatory offenders are very good at is assuming the victim role. Once they are caught, and at risk of being held accountable, they work to obtain sympathy from the public, the media, family and friends, other offenders, to make others feel sorry for them, and in the process, avoid responsibility for their actions.
An often proffered excuse is: The child molester was molested when they were a child, so they can’ help it. Besides, there is evidence they were born that way, and that this is their sexual preference. The domestic abuser watched his father beat his mother as a child so this is normal for them . They don’t know any better. Human psychology is much more complex than this. People react to adversity, hardship, and trauma in many different ways. Simplistic, linear cause and effect seldom applies in the context of human behavior. But these poor misunderstood victims of society have had a hard life the liberals protest vituperatively. Poverty, violence, addiction, discrimination, and limited opportunities are real challenges, and create suffering. If you have had a hard life, so have many others. Is this license to harm and victimize others, and perpetuate even more misery?
A different perspective on criminal responsibility:
Compassion is what separates reasonably psychologically healthy people from the offender, but compassion must be defined. Is it compassionate to allow offenders to prey on others? To disrupt a community and society? What about compassion and sympathy for the victims of crime? For the community and society as a whole? Many offenders have had hard lives. But this recognition does does not mean excusing their behavior. If an offender has abused or molested as a child, or been discriminated against, or grew up in poverty and desperation, that is real suffering and hardship. But how does that make it OK to hurt others? If one has known violence, sexual abuse, hunger, deprivation, and hatred, shouldn’t they be more motivated than someone who has never known these things not to inflict them on others? Offenders can make positive changes when they stop feeling sorry for themselves, and blaming others for a hard life, and making life hard for others in return.
It is very big leap to feel sorry for someone who has suffered, and excusing their worst behavior; the two are not mutually exclusive categories. If offenders are going to have any hope of changing, they have to be held accountable. If society is going to be safe, criminals have to be held accountable. We have become such a sensitive and tolerant society. We need to ask ourselves if tolerance is always a good thing.
Barnhart, T. (2009). Inmate Manipulations. Corrections.com. Retrieved January 12, 2016 from http://www.corrections.com/tracy_barnhart/?p=298
Brainy Quote. (2015). Quotes from Frank Rizzo. Brainy Quote. (2015). Retrieved January 13, 2016 from http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/f/frank_rizzo.html
Elliot, W.N. (2006). Power and Control Tactics Employed by Prison Inmates—A Case Study. Federal Probation. 70 (1). 45-48.
n.a. (n.d.) Classical Criminology. Criminal Justice. Retrieved January 13, 2016 from http://criminal-justice.iresearchnet.com/criminology/classical-criminology/
Oxford Index. (2014). Positivist View of criminology. Oxford Index. Retrieved January 13, 2016 from http://oxfordindex.oup.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803100339389