Crime and Punishment

Jan 99

It is a cardinal Buddhist teaching that existence in any realm is inherently imperfect and unsatisfactory. This is often all too evident in this, our imperfect human society. We can try and make our lives and those around us more harmonious and happy by keeping the basic rules of morality. Unfortunately not everyone sees the wisdom of abiding by these rules and society must find some way of dealing with the lawbreakers in our midst.

In some quarters recently there has been renewed calls for a "crackdown on crime;" longer sentences, tougher prisons, a tightening of the young offender's act. Decent folk victimized by crime often feel an instinctive urge to seek vengeance. We should pause and think carefully about this problem before giving in to an urge which in the last analysis arises from aversion.

In most modern societies the usual way of dealing with lawbreakers is imprisonment. There would seem to be four reasons for jailing someone;

1- Punishment. This is the community's expression of revenge for harm inflicted. It may seem to be justified when someone has done an evil, especially a violent, deed. But from a Buddhist understanding there is no necessity at all for society to impose retribution. The law of karma guarantees that there is no escape from the results of our thoughts, words and deeds. Karma is a natural law and unlike human justice it cannot be influenced or deviate from its proper unfoldment.

2- Deterrence. Perhaps the threat of incarceration can prevent some criminal acts, but the effectiveness of harsher punishment as a stronger deterrence has often been questioned statistically.

3- Rehabilitation- Another central teaching of the Buddha is the Law of Impermanence. Nothing whatsoever remains fixed even for two consecutive moments, least of all the human psyche. An enlightened criminal justice system makes as its first goal the rehabilitation and restoration of the wrong-doer to the community. There have been some hopeful experiments in this direction, such as the use of healing circles borrowed from out First Nations tradition. But all too often our prisons are nothing but a prolonged exercise in brutalization. The inmates return to society at the end of their time worse than they went in.

4- Protection of the Innocent- However there are rare cases of amoral monsters who need to be segrated from society for everyone's protection. Very few law-breakers fall into this category, and even here we should extend our compassion. They are already living in a private hell and there is no need to make their lives any more miserable.

But more important in the long run than dealing with crime is an understanding of how it arises in the first place, and using that understanding to create a healthy social climate that minimizes the growth of the criminal element.

The Buddha's teaching is an eminently practical one, and although he quite properly gave most attention to the ultimate question of suffering and its cessation he did not neglect discussion of more mundane concerns. In the Kutadanta Sutta (Digha Nikaya 5) he tells the story of a wise counselor and a foolish king. The kingdom was being ravaged by brigands and highway robbers. The king wanted to "get tough," send in the army and hang of few of the miscreants as an example to the rest. The wise counselor offered another suggestion;

"With this plan you can eliminate the plague. To those who are engaged in cultivating crops and raising cattle, let your majesty distribute grain and fodder. To those in trade, give capital. To those in government service assign proper living wages. Then those people being intent on their occupations will not harm the kingdom. Your majesty's revenues will be great, the land will be tranquil and not beside by thieves and the people with joy in their hearts will play with their children in open houses." (M. Walshe translation)

It is astonishing how this text speaks to present social debates. It is clear that the root of crime is poverty and idleness and that if we truly want to reduce crime we must, as a society, address the roots of that evil. It is not only the wise thing to do, it is also the manifestation of compassion.

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