Tuesday, April 24, 2007

A Wiccan Prison Chaplain Responds

A Wiccan prison chaplain writes,

Because Normal Ordinary Responsible People (NORPs) cannot conceive of committing horrendous acts themselves, we find it difficult to think or believe that there are people who commit horrendous acts willingly. We struggle to understand the incomprehensible. Since most people accept that others think like they do, when we hear of someone who thinks differently, and we see the horrible, painful results of that thinking, we assume that something must have "driven" them to it--an unjust, dysfunctional culture, bad parenting or an abusive childhood, mental illness, or a host of other reasons. But this theory of criminal behavior is badly flawed.

With more than 2,000,000 individuals currently incarcerated in prisons and jails in the United States, we have the highest absolute number of imprisoned persons in the world. There are currently some 6,000,000 people under some form of court-ordered supervision; electronic monitoring, probation or parole. These numbers are appalling, but they amount to less than 5% of our population. That means that more than 95% of Americans manage to live their lives without committing horrendous crimes, in spite of the fact that they live in this same sick dysfunctional culture. More than 99% manage to do it without murdering anybody.

The inmates that I work with, if they're honest with themselves and honest with me, all say that they made a choice to commit crime, either through an active choice, or by going along with someone else's decision. Many of them can cite addiction or abuse, or a host of other extenuating circumstances, but they acknowledge personal choice at the center of their decision. When pressed for a reason, the most common is that "it seemed like a good idea at the time".
(Emphasis added. Quoted with permission from the original writer, Martin Anthony.)

So when someone (as has happened) tries to deal with, for instance, the Virginia Tech shootings by going all Reclaiming ("Each of us embodies the divine."), the appropriate response might be, "Fine, but if they are trying to kill me, I am going to try to stop them with my own innate divinity--and whatever weapons are handy."



Blogger Hadar said...

Saying "free choice" is like saying "bad parenting". The etiology of crime isn't something you can just decide is "flawed" without empirical support. Yes, of course there are aspects of choice, as there are aspects of circumstance, as countless studies of criminology tell us.

And when someone cites the alarming American prison rates - precisely for murder, where we actually have DNA cases to show us that we have innocent folks in our prisons - he or she is deducing crime from punishment, which is, well, not the variable you want to use. Prison rates represent, well, the rates in which people in the American system are sent to prison. Couldn't it be that some of American criminal justice may be exacerbating the problem?

Also, the small percentage of offenders certainly doesn't "prove" or "disprove" anything about etiology. It could be that a small number of people choose to commit crime, or that a small number of people are genetically predisposed toward crime, or any combination of the two. This is way more complex than how the chaplain presents it. Sorry for this verbal outburst, but as someone who actually collects data on these issues for a living, these unfounded gospels really irk me.

9:51 PM  
Blogger Chas S. Clifton said...

And your point is what? Yes, some people are convicted wrongly, but how many?

And you do not think that criminals exercise free choice?

Since you "actually collect data," please cite some of your publications.

7:39 PM  
Blogger Hadar said...

Obviously, we can't know how many people are convicted wrongly. We only know about these cases from the instances in which DNA evidence proves it was a false conviction, and these expensive processes happen almost only in capital crimes. Since there's no reason to assume the evidence in other crimes is less flimsy, we can project.

As to the free choice/determinism question, I think it's probably healthy to accept that reality is a lot more complex than these simplistic dichotomies. Social circumstances have a lot to do with where you are in life, and whether crime is a viable option for you; but of course not everyone who is born in poverty then leads a life of crime. For some folks, pathology is a factor, and for others, less so. Given that it seems to be such a complex web of variables, I find the simplification problematic.

As to the citation you provided, I do think that citing the fact that very few people commit crimes as proof, for free choice OR for determinism, doesn't prove anything. And I also think that citing the number of imprisoned people to deduce the number of committed crimes is an unhelpful variable.

I'd rather take away from this interaction something more constructive and enriching than a personal insult, so rather than parroting my publication list on a stranger's blog reply, I'll simply recommend taking a look at any theoretical criminology textbook. There is no one simple gospel on the etiology of crime; classicist criminal law, with its image of a rational, autonomous offender, is merely one possible image. So is the positivist-deterministic approach that attributes everything to biology. There's a broad spectrum between these two approaches.

Being the thoughtful person you are, who's posted some interesting things here, I invite you to think more dialectically about this; yes, there will be monstrous events like Virginia Tech. And yes, we should make conscious and responsible choices on the spiritual level. However, we know crime isn't distributed equally across the population, and perhaps we can accept that this has less of a clear answer than that provided by the chaplain you cited.

12:04 PM  
Blogger Chas S. Clifton said...


You misread my comment. Since you describe yourself as a researcher, I was asking for your publications in this area.

12:58 PM  
Blogger Hadar said...

Email sent.

Now that the credential part of the conversation is out of the way, let's talk about this. Do you think criminal behavior is just a matter of free choice, and there are no factors beyond our control?

1:42 PM  
Blogger Chas S. Clifton said...

Well, folks, that email with hadar's credentials never arrived, and I wonder why he felt that he could not just post them here in the comments. I have my own thoughts on the matter.

8:47 AM  

<< Home