Editorial: Punishment versus rehabilitation

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With the crime wave swamping Antigua, discussions inevitably begin to focus on two related but different approaches to reducing crime:  punishment and rehabilitation.  We will state our position up front and say that we prefer the route of rehabilitation, but, at the same time, we support severe punishment as a deterrent. 
We know that some persons will say that is a very ‘wishy-washy’ response, but it is one that we believe is practical and one that takes into consideration the complexities of dealing with crime in our bit of paradise.
Our preference toward rehabilitation comes from a firm belief that our current system of criminal punishment contributes significantly toward the creation of hardened criminals.  Often, we take troubled youth and destroy their lives from a very early age by incarcerating them for relatively minor offences, and that creates a ‘farm team’ for the criminals that reside at Her Magesty’s Prison (a.k.a. 1735).  Worse, we often direct our youth toward the streets and crime by expelling them from school and removing good options from their lives.
This is not to make excuses for the poor choices that people make in life, as it relates to crime. Rather, it is simply to point out that if we force people into a particular set of circumstances, they may be more inclined to make bad decisions.  A young, first offender in prison has little choice but to ‘pick a side’ to get along.  And in prison, there are generally no good sides. 
Once indoctrinated to the criminal life and exposed to hardened, career criminals, who, in many cases, they must rely on for ‘survival’, their lot is cast.  Similarly, when a young troublemaker is expelled from school and other schools are unwilling to receive him or her, the positive options become slim to none, and a life of crime is almost certain for all but the strongest and those blessed with an environment that provides good options.
We know that we are not alone in our thoughts on this matter.  Recently, Probation Officer Denfield Phillip suggested that the Ministry of Education take a serious look at changing the rules of expulsion for troubled youth.  After completing a social inquiry report, the 10-year plus veteran, identified that review as one of several ways to reduce the criminal turnover rate. 
He noted that the majority of robberies and other criminal offences are being committed by people between the ages of 14 and 45, and that most of the young criminals had dropped out or had been expelled from school.  His professional assessment was, “when they drop out of school and cannot get a job, they have to survive, and they seek other ways of trying to survive and a lot of times, they end up before the court.”  It all seems so obvious, yet still we continue to do the same thing day in and day out, hoping that we will get another result.
While we support harsh punishment for serious offenders, especially repeat offenders who are indifferent to the level of violence that they employ while committing crimes, we believe that we must have provided for ‘an ounce of prevention’ before we seek a cure with a ‘pound of punishment.’
To his further credit, Phillip is not myopic in his view of our society.  He also laid blame on poor parenting which, he said, caused mainly boys, to associate with mentors outside of the home. In many instances, those mentors belong to gangs.  This goes back to one of those societal ills that we have talked about too many times before:  please do not have children if you are not committed to the responsibility of being a good parent. 
We can all jump up and down and demand that the Government and the police do something about the crime in Antigua and Barbuda, but what are we doing in the home, and as parents, to combat the behaviour that eventually prepares an individual to pursue a life of crime?  We create a set of circumstances that grooms our children for recruitment into a criminal life, and then we abdicate any responsibility for our actions.  This is why Philip has identified the home as where “the main problem lies.”
Crime is a shared responsibility.  It starts in the home and continues with every step that our young people take.  When the family fails them, there should be some social safety net to show them a different path.  Something that does not penalise them for life for the crappy circumstances that caused them to dabble with crime.   Our systems should seek to rescue them and not add insult to the injury they have already suffered. 
Choosing severe punishment over rehabilitation early in life seems to be a situation where we are helping to create criminals that we will ultimately have to deal with later on.  As Mr. Phillip has said, it is time to rethink the way we deal with youthful offenders.  We must seek to change their direction and make every effort to develop them into productive citizens early on in life, rather than compounding the situation and having to deal with them when they are dangerous criminals. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
 

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