The Passé Principle of Punishment

Several years ago my home state modified the name of its’ prison system from the California Department of Corrections (CDC) to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). I feared the change in name would be followed by incarceration philosophies detrimental to the citizens of the Golden State.

Now California goes out of its’ way through policies, legislative action, and legal mandates to release all but the heinous criminal offenders with very limited punishment and mysterious rehabilitation. This has made a life of crime more profitable then ever, and pursued by those with a bent toward cheating the system. Furthermore, many who are too slothful to find legitimate work, lack self-control, or are controlled by chemical substances, find their lives revolving through jailhouse doors like teenagers frequenting the mall.

My argument is not anti-rehabilitation. Quite the contrary! We have a vested interest in seeing lives modified so positive choices are made and I fully support them. My argument is not deterrence, although I believe strict punishment has a deterrent effect. Even my adversaries cannot argue that one is less likely to speed by a motor officer holding a radar gun at the side of the road. My argument is not safety, although this is one of the intended benefits of punishment as those incarcerated, regardless of reformation, cannot burglarize a home (or other public offense) from prison.

My thesis is that punishment should be the first step taken by the government to guide the individual toward a new life, fully understanding a large percentage will be unsuccessful for a variety of reasons. But when rehabilitation supersedes or eliminates punishment as part of the equation, failure will follow and societal order will suffer.

Consider the person who chooses fitness as a lifestyle. A measured amount of physical duress (punishment) will strengthen the body. “No pain, no gain” is posted in one form or another in workout rooms everywhere. Until muscles are broken down through exercise they cannot be developed. If the principle of punishment helps gain fitness, it can be applied to conduct as well.

“People do not despise a thief if he steals to satisfy his appetite when he is hungry,” reads a well-known proverb, “but if he is caught, he will pay sevenfold; he will give all the goods of his house.”

Whether the punishment is incarceration, repayment with interest, or a combination of both, it needs to be present if we hope to modify behavior. But discipline should never be lost as a consequence for illegal activity.

For the person seeking, or enduring forced rehabilitation, there is value in serving a justified sentence for their crime(s). The worth of paying a public debt will favorably contribute to a fresh start. The absence of such liability will perpetuate the enabling cycle of failure.

As a young man, I had a rebellious streak in me. I pushed the boundaries whenever possible. While a certain degree of mercy was appreciated, I could have found myself engaged in a life of crime instead of a career combating it had there been no fear of criminal penalties for my actions.

Eliminating negative consequences for destructive activity is not helpful. It is harmful to civilization and those who play by the rules. Good citizens will continue to suffer at the hands of others who refuse adherence to criminal statutes. I hope it is not too late for public policy makers to understand The Passé Principle of Punishment has value to law and order.

-Jim McNeff

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