It has been the source of considerable humor and concern that a great many criminals have been set free because of the health concerns over the Coronavirus. On the one hand, it is easy to see that those who might feel themselves trapped in high density places where medical care is not likely to be the best and where soap and visits from family and lawyers and others are limited because of quarantine concerns would be of particularly low morale. No one wishes for a prison sentence for crimes that one has been duly convicted of to be something more like a death sentence, although admittedly there are plenty of crimes that would warrant a more severe punishment than currently is the case at present. As a means of being generous to prisoners, a great many people in prison, some of them famous and most of them fairly obscure, have been released and told to lay low and avoid committing crimes. It is not particularly surprising that this has not been the case, even though some jurisdictions have refused to arrest people who are guilty of crimes that are judged as being less serious or nonviolent. The combination of freedom for criminals and the absence of large amounts of witnesses to people’s behaviors has led predictably to high amounts of various kinds of crime.
My own thoughts about penology are somewhat complex, at least within the bounds of the normal discussion of such matters in our society. I do not believe in the least that criminals have a debt to society for their actions. I do believe, most firmly, that criminals, whether convicted or charged or not, owe a debt to the people that they commit crimes against. This debt is seldom paid, and seldom even considered when one looks at matters of punishment. Be that as it may, I do not tend to believe that imprisonment is effective in converting people from lawbreakers to lawabiding citizens. What it is effective at is keeping people who break laws from being free to do so. It can be observed rather easily (in times like the present) that there is a criminal class and such people when free from imprisonment tend to disregard calls to lay low while a public health crisis is going on and go about breaking laws and disrespecting the rights of others because that is what they do. That this is not without consequences, some of them likely to be long-lasting, is not surprising, but if criminals were wise at reflecting upon the repercussions of their behavior, they would likely not have become part of the criminal class to begin with and found better and less destructive ways of spending their time.
How is it that one goes about motivating people to obey laws when they have set upon themselves to break them? When people talk about the school-to-prison pipeline, not enough attention is paid to the way that schools themselves are somewhat prison-like. For a dozen years or more, people are forced to spend a lot of time around those they would not care to spend time with if they chose, forced to deal with ridiculous and petty teasing and hazing from others, and placed in an environment where one’s freedoms are stripped away and one is expected to serve time and learn what one needs to learn to get out. Those who are able to keep their head down find in education a way to freedom, by learning things that other people do not want to learn and doing things that other people are unwilling to do but need to be done, and find a way towards a better life. Others rebel against the structure and limitations and lack of freedom involved and find themselves in a place of less gentle forms of education, namely various institutions involved in the legal system. The people who end up becoming criminals are those who are the least interested in learning and being motivated to respect the people and property of others, which is how they generally find themselves in trouble to begin with. To the extent that we respected others and what belongs to others, we would have few problems that would lead ourselves to a place like prison to begin with. Even political prisoners are there largely because of issues of “respect,” as painful as it is to find that one has overestimated the ability of others to handle blunt honesty in political and social matters.
It is clear that those authorities that release criminals into the general population want those criminals to act according to their self-interest, which would lead them to keep their head down and avoid causing problems for themselves and others. After, in an environment where even ordinary citizens may find themselves being a bit restive about obeying quarantine laws, it is of the utmost importance that the social fabric is not threatened by released criminals doing what it is that got them in trouble in the first place. Those who have trusted on the self-interest and restraint of such criminals may find themselves to have placed people in a position where they can easily commit crimes, only to harden the attitude of ordinary law-abiding citizens towards the criminal class and make greater efforts at penal reform politically impossible because of the hostility that people have towards those who commit crimes against them. But if criminals knew and acted upon what was good for them, they would not be criminals at all. It can be hard for us to admit that the law is for our benefit, but in an antinomian society like our own, the price for not admitting it can be immense and long-lasting.