Springing the Prisoners: Crime and Human Behavior


Whether you have been a victim or perpetrator of crime—or perhaps both—you may have a strong opinion as to the most effective methods preventing it. Nevertheless, it is a global social problem that is not easily solved: opinions about crime prevention are sharply divided. 

An entire system of infrastructure spans the globe in an effort to prevent and deal with crime, comprising social, economic and educational programs, police departments, and prison facilities. Yet, for all this, prison population growth has expanded by nearly 20 percent since the year 2000. According to the International Centre for Prison Studies (ICPS), for every 694 citizens of the world, one is in prison.

The costs to society in financial as well as human terms are staggering, and continued growth in prison populations is clearly unsustainable. But what can be done to reverse this trend? What is the most effective way to deal with criminal behaviour? The methods currently employed cover a spectrum that begins with parents and communities, in whose care young lives are formed and habits are established, and extends to crime prevention and the capture, incarceration or even execution of the perpetrator. 

Regardless of which end of the crime prevention and punishment spectrum we consider to be the most crucial focus in the fight against crime, money is a key factor. The U.S., for example, incarcerates over 2.2 million people and spends billions of dollars doing so. Imprisoning people for long sentences obviously incurs a considerable cost, one that is regularly debated on balance with the cost of crime, which—when fully accounted for—is considerable. 

While economists continue to debate the ratios between cost of imprisonment and cost of criminal activity, countries such as France and Italy have experimented with early-release programs and mass pardons to help cope with burgeoning prison populations. But the threat of re-offense versus the cost of internment traps governments in a balancing act that they continue to struggle to get right

Whichever way we look at society’s efforts to mitigate the problem, no point on the spectrum (nor even the spectrum as a whole) has managed to put an end to criminal behaviour. Rather, statistics support the plain fact that the fountain producing it gushes as strong and as abundant as ever, no matter how earnestly we attempt to stem the flow (or to deal with the deluge of problems that it creates).

That fountain, collectively and individually, is nothing more than our human nature. The drive to promote our desires and ourselves is so ingrained in our nature that any one of us, unless we commit to a way of life that can change that nature, is a potential criminal in waiting. Merely suppressing that nature—preventing and incarcerating it, or mopping up the problems it creates—does not change that nature.

The problem is that we have accepted our human nature on its own terms, even perceiving it to be an evolutionary fact that we have to deal with. On the basis of that error we have become prisoners to it—obeying it, yielding to its corruptive influence and perpetually cleaning up after it, but never ever in the history of human governance, resolving it.

To resolve the issue of criminal behaviour—to stop crime—that nature must be changed. That isn't something that you or I can do on our own. It is possible for us to change, but it requires us to reject our natural human nature (and confidence in our ability to govern it without help), and to accept a new nature that gives access to a different fountain—water from a different well, if you will.

This well, which the Bible refers to as the fountain of life, offers us a different way of living. It’s a way that focuses on giving rather than getting, and on others rather than self. The good news is that we are promised a time to come when everyone will have the opportunity to take on this new nature, but even now we can benefit from following the example set by Jesus Christ. It’s an example that few follow, but when understood properly promotes right behaviour, adherence to law, and abundant life.



Imprisoned in the System

The modern penal system in many nations has been a failed experiment in rehabilitation. Are reformation and reconciliation possible for prisoners?



Tags: human behavior, human nature, criminal justice, prison system

War, Violence on the Wane? Humanity More Empathetic?

Violence“Today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence.” Chances are this statement strikes you as counterintuitive. Rest assured that its author, Harvard professor Steven Pinker, anticipated your skepticism. Pinker is a cognitive scientist and one of the world’s foremost writers on language, mind and human nature. He has been named Humanist of the Year and was listed among Prospect magazine’s “World’s Top 100 Public Intellectuals,” Foreign Policy’s “100 Global Thinkers” and Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World Today.”

His 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, charts the historical trajectory of violence and presents a case for a verifiable drop in the rate of reliance on violence in human civilization. Professor Pinker knows this conclusion will contradict the prevailing impression most people have of the perils of the present day. He considers the tendency to distort the danger of the modern era a “cognitive illusion” reinforced by the “if it bleeds it leads” media template.

While acknowledging that humankind’s capacity for destruction has increased (relative to the proliferation of nuclear weapons), Pinker insists that the rate at which humanity resorts to violence has been receding and continues to decline. He suggests that we erroneously glamorize the past as genteel and exaggerate the present as overly perilous. Among the factors to which he attributes the trend away from violence is what he calls the “escalator of reason”the increasing cognitive capacity of human beings. As an evolutionary psychologist, Pinker foresees a path of human adaptation and development from aggression to increased empathy.

One example of enlightened human reasoning offered is humanity’s rejection of the God of the Hebrew Scriptures:

“The Bible is revered today by billions of people who call it the source of their moral values. . . . Yet for all this reverence, the Bible is one long celebration of violence. . . .

“The Bible depicts a world that, seen through modern eyes, is staggering in its savagery. . . .

“If you think that by reviewing the literal content of the Hebrew Bible I am trying to impugn the billions of people who revere it today, then you are missing the point. The overwhelming majority of observant Jews and Christians are, needless to say, thoroughly decent people who do not sanction genocide, rape, slavery, or stoning people for frivolous infractions. Their reverence for the Bible is purely talismanic. In recent millennia and centuries the Bible has been spin-doctored, allegorized, superseded by less violent texts (the Talmud among Jews and the New Testament among Christians), or discreetly ignored. And that is the point. Sensibilities toward violence have changed so much that religious people today compartmentalize their attitude to the Bible. They pay it lip service as a symbol of morality, while getting their actual morality from more modern principles.

“Christians downplay the wrathful deity of the Old Testament in favor of a newer conception of God, exemplified in the New Testament (the Christian Bible) by his son Jesus, the Prince of Peace.”

Here Pinker portrays Jesus as a human constructa complete makeover of the God concept. Because the God of the Hebrew Scriptures is perceived as a violent bully, He is distasteful to modern sensitivities. Therefore, through the “escalator of reason,” humankind has reinvented and replaced Him with Jesus, who is more suited to our empathetic evolutionary state.

However, this theory fails to recognize the close relationship between Jesus of the Apostolic Writings and the two divine Beings of the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus said His mission and message came from the Father (John 5:19–20, 30). He tells His followers that if they have seen Him, they have seen the Father (John 14:9–11). Jesus is completely and consistently aligned with His Father (John 17:4–5, 11, 21). His definition of violence, too, differs from the mainstream; to Jesus, to hate another person is akin to murder.

For many, Pinker’s empirical premise and the suggestion that faith can be placed on enhanced human reasoning remains unsatisfying. Even while striving to be empathetic, they will lock their doors tonight and pray as Jesus taught, asking to be divinely delivered from evil in all its forms.

David Hulme and Tom Fitzpatrick

Tags: war, violence, human nature, empathy