Declaring Peace on Crime

By Elias, Robert | The Humanist, March-April 1994 | Go to article overview

Declaring Peace on Crime


Elias, Robert, The Humanist


In the last issue of The Humanist, I argued that our current crime, control policies have proven to be an abysmal failure.

Unfortunately, however, critics of mainstream crime policy have not provided a comprehensive vision of an alternative strategy, thus ceding the crime "issue" to the society's most conservative forces. Instead of the old get-tough policies, we need a new get-smart strategy. We need to reject the outdated cliches of crime control, including the notion that draconian punishments, increased incarceration, and official violence are the only ways to get "serious" about crime. People want peaceful communities. Only justice can produce that peace; but only peaceful, nonviolent means can produce justice--including criminal justice.

A peace movement against crime would not perpetuate conventional "law-and-order" strategies. It would not promote the self-serving perspectives of the criminal-justice industry, nor would it embrace official responses designed to coopt victim movements and citizen action. Most importantly, it would not analyze the "crime problem" piecemeal, apart from con, temporary social conditions. These are among the reasons why mainstream crime policy repeatedly fails.

A strategy of active nonviolence may well be the only realistic way of reducing crime and victimization. Instead of waging endless (and losing) "wars" against crime, perhaps it is time we gave peace a chance. Such a strategy would include:

A Human Rights Strategy

Crime victims and communities in general now pursue a piece, meal rights competition against offenders--a zero-sum game in which one group's well-being relies on the other's misery. In, stead, we should embrace a human-rights strategy which recognizes crime's cultural sources (often ignored or even exploited by the elites we now rely upon as our protectors). A human, rights analysis recognizes the connection between social victimization and criminal victimization, as suggested, for example, in the recent United Nations Declaration on the Victims of Crime and Abuses of Power. It stresses the importance of substantive and procedural rights for victims, offenders, and other citizens alike.

Equal Laws for All

There are limits to the changes the legal system can produce. The law cannot stop crime; in particular, imposing draconian punishments will not prevent victimization, as our already stringent penalties make clear. Nevertheless, we can make some important adjustments in the law in order to productively refocus law-enforcement energies and eliminate discriminatory double standards. Criminal law must be reconstructed according to the real harm crime causes others.

* Decriminalization. We should decriminalize drug use and possession, end our counterproductive drug wars, and divert law enforcement to more serious harms, thereby eliminating the extensive crime and violence which drug criminalization generates. Drug abuse should be addressed through treatment, education, and social revitalization. Likewise, gambling, prostitution, sodomy, and other victimless "crimes" should also be decriminalized.

* Depenalization. Criminal penalties should be reevaluated and reduced. Imprisonment does not achieve its penological objectives; instead, it generates more crime. Incarceration should be mandated only as a last resort, and more effective alternatives to prison should instead be incorporated into the criminal law.

* Criminalization. Punishment should address the harm caused by the offender and not his or her social or economic status. Corporate and official wrongdoing--Wall Street stock fraud, the savings-and-loan debacle, Iraqgate, and the Housing and Urban Development scandal, to name but a few examples--produce far more damage, loss, and injury than common crimes. These harms should be incorporated into the criminal law and sanctioned proportional to their impact. Penal in, equalities between street crime and white-collar corporate or official offenses should be eliminated. …

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