Crime and Punishment

Do you consider whether the punishment fits the crime? In the old days, the accused might choose a champion who fought for him. Nowadays, we hire lawyers to defend us in court. Truly, the pen is mightier than the sword. Other cultures are more brutal. If you’re caught stealing, they cut off your hand. They don’t make allowances for your troubled childhood or twisted mind. If you do a bad deed, you pay for it.

Some of these punishments are well illustrated at the Crime Museum downtown in Washington D.C. I’m doing a detailed walk-through of this experience on my personal blog along with photos, but suffice it to say that methods of crime detection and types of punishment have changed greatly through the ages.

Victim (800x600)

Nan Stocks (800x600)

Basically, the top floor of this fascinating museum gives a historical look at what counted as a crime beginning in medieval days and working its way through history toward modern CSI techniques. Did you know that you could be punished for kissing on the Sabbath during Colonial times? That was considered lewd and unseemly behavior, and you might even get your ears nailed to the pillory while you’re sitting in the stocks.

Interactive kiosks challenge you to participate. You can do fun things like shoot a Glock 17 at a police simulation, see how quick you can defuse a bomb, learn how to crack a safe, and match a bullet in the crime lab.

Electric Chair (600x800)

Today’s crime scene investigation involves science and observation. The public’s fascination is shown in multiple versions of Sherlock Holmes and CSI shows on television. More abhorrent are how criminals become celebrities. They’re certainly going to be satisfied if they commit their crimes for fame and recognition. Turn on the evening news, and watch the reporters talk about local murders ad nauseum.

Cold Case (800x600)

Do today’s punishments fit the crimes? Or have we become too lenient, too civilized? Do punishments even work? Are they truly the deterrent they’re meant to be, other than keeping the bad guys off the streets? What about so-called “white collar” crimes? Rather than sitting in prison, should those criminals be put to work to compensate their victims or to educate others?

Crime Scene (800x600)

While highly entertaining, the displays in the Crime Museum make you think about the nature of crime, how the definition depends upon the culture, and whether the punishment is suitable and effective.

Crime Museum (800x600)

10 thoughts on “Crime and Punishment

  1. Ever since Hammurabi’s Code, man has tried to figure out how to punish. The old “eye for an eye” rule of retribution seemed simple enough, but then we had to figure out what to do in cases with “extenuating circumstances.” And then how much discretion to give a sitting judge. It goes on and on, until one case gets picked up for the “outrage of the week” by a pundit and crowds are whipped into a frenzy. The history of the penal system is, in many ways, an attempt to mollify crowd sentiment. Which is not always a good thing.

    I do like the idea of a white collar criminal mowing lawns, however.

  2. Mowing the lawn while wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with “I’m a crook” and leg irons, eh Mr. Bell? 🙂

    On a vacation year before last, my daughter and I stopped to tour the old prison at Boise, ID. Boy, talk about dehumanizing and depressing. After seeing the place, I wished we’d hit the botanical gardens instead. Hard to imagine one human treating another like the inmates were treated.


  3. I wouldn’t put a prison on my tour list, not even Alcatraz. The botanical garden sounds like a much cheerier prospect.

    James, don’t forget about “innocent until proven guilty.” How many people who did not commit a crime get incarcerated?

  4. Indeed, Nancy. The presumption of innocence is what old Rumpole called the “golden thread” running through jurisprudence. Which is why it is so distressing to see lynch mob mentality being unloosed again in certain hotspots. But that is exactly why we have a justice SYSTEM.

  5. Put ’em in a botanical garden and make ’em get down on their hands and knees and pull weeds (no gloves) while wearing a hot t-shirt with “It’s all my fault” printed on it. Oh, and make ’em listen to the Barney theme song all the time.

  6. Here’s another one that’s more to the point: “… the justice system is more about the system than the justice.”
    — Don Winslow, The Kings of Cool

  7. I like the Sheriff Joe Arpaio method. The entire general prison population gets Neon Pink or Blaze Orange Jumpsuits, physical labor in the public eye and very boring, tasteless and repetitive meal menus (food quality can be an amazing motivator).

    And to be honest, I’m all for the death penalty for murder and rape when guilt is proven beyond a reasonable. A huge percentage of murderers and rapists are repeat offenders, why do we keep letting them out on the streets and why should we be required to pay up to $100k a year to keep them in prison for 40 or 50 years?

    One of the reasons we have so much vicious tribal gang warfare going on in the cities is that most of these gang bangers know that even if they kill some kid in a crossfire they’ll probably only spend a few years in jail. And when they’re in jail they can make business connections with other criminals, work out, get strong, take college classes and generally improve their ability to commit crimes later.

    I think there’s something wrong with the current prison system when we have nearly 70% of prisoners being rearrested within 3 years of release. Not enough motivation to stay out of prison for good.

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