A young adult American – usually male – has committed a crime. He stands in the dock. As we sit as courtroom observers, what, in the overwhelming majority of the cases, do we see before us? As we’ve discussed in earlier blogs:
1. We see a young man who has failed at school. There is a high probability that Bill/William/Guillermo is a marginal or failed reader. He did not like school. He did not do much bonding with the adults that ran it. It is more likely that he did not graduate from high school.
2. We see a young individual who’s view of the material world that he has learned about in his community, and via the media, simply does not match his functional capacities to prosper within it.
3. We see an individual who is not significantly attached to older adults outside of a few members of his immediate family. Bill doesn’t care. Guillermo is instinctively impolite. A disrepectful William has seen and heard it all.
4. We see a guy who, paradoxically, is strongly Self-oriented, and possibly strongly supported (attached) by a small tribe of male peers. But while he may be Self-assured in this peer group predominately populated by individuals with personal stories that parallel his, Bill/Guillermo/William operates with very little confidence in the wider (real) world.
5. We see a young man who, more often than not, arose from a history of neglcct, probable abuse, and sustained stress. These internal scars from his childhood are, of course, externally invisible. There is a pretty good chance that the instability of his life has been neurologically and behaviorally complicated by a history of substance abuse.
6. There is a near-equal chance that the young fellow in the dock developed habits of aggressiveness that contributed directly to adaptive success in his early environment — but did not exactly endear him to the authority figures in his local community or school.
As we view this young man from our courtroom seat, our first response to his offense [he stole MY personal property; he invaded MY personal territory; he is degrading MY neighborhood; he physically threatened or abused ME;he broke MY rules] is to BLAME him for offending. Our intestinal reaction leads us directly from blame to punishment. Through our own long history of brain plasticity-recorded experiences, WE are richly attached to the wider human family, and that attachment leads us to follow, support and sustain THE rules (OUR rules) that keep it safe. Our instinctive reaction is to DEtach any offender. He broke MY (OUR, Society’s) rules. The punishment for that, of course, is banishment.
On the face of it, we argue to ourSelves (and as a society), that mere detachment (his removal from US) should help him understand that he should not offend again.
You can think of this strategy as a massive experiment that has been conducted with millions of offending young men over the course of human history. Has it worked? Does removing offenders from society and imprisoning them in isolation from the rest of us increase: 1) Their attachment to us? 2) Their ability to re-align their media-acquired world view with the cold realities of their actual lives? 3) Their adjustments as members of a marginalized minority community in ways that enable their joining our majority mainstream? 4) Their ability to overcome early-childhood trauma, abuse, or chronic stress? 5) Their ability to read/think/thrive in the ways demanded for operating in our modern era? 6) A recovery of their Self-confidence as it relates to their positive interactions with US? 7) The recovery from a long history of learned aggression?
The answer is clear as crystal.
It doesn’t work.
How COULD it work?
From a brain plasticity perspective, it would assume that you can achieve large-scale corrective or improving changes in brains by doing almost nothing that COULD drive this young offender’s brain in a corrective direction. It assumes, in effect, that Bill/Guillermo/William will like us more if we abuse him more.
There is a word for this. The word is “dumb”.
Our primary response to it NOT working in modern times seems to be: “Since it’s clearly NOT working, let’s do MORE of it. Let’s DEtach these guys for longer periods. Maybe forever.” Forever would work, if safety is the main issue (which it is, for many of our fellow citizens). But it’s damned expensive, it will waste literally millions of lives, it accepts that we can just ‘throw away’ every 10th or 15th or 20th male in your state, and it is pretty clearly unfair. After all, you and I put in place the societal forces that put most of the Bills/Guillermos/Williams at high risk for this outcome and pretty strongly embedded those risk factos in them, through brain plasticity, by the time that they were 9 or 10 years old.
It is important to understand that there is something else that is fundamentally wrong with this approach. Let’s take a thousand young offenders and DEtach them from the wider society, and house them together. Success and sometimes survival in their new environment requires that they quickly form alliances. Members of marginal minority groups quickly find individuals who have shared important aspects of the unsuccessful world views that they developed in their young childhoods. Everywhere you look, the attachments of these chronically adrift and detached and variously failed and wounded young men are re-established, and they grow apace. What else, after all, COULD happen? Do you imagine that this bonding is going to increase these young men’s attachment-based empathy for you, or for your grandmother? Do you think that it is growing their empathy for us?
You might be saying to yourself, “Gee, most prisons have programs designed to help young men see the light. Most are working hard to help them successfully return to society, where they can live a good life again, happily ever after.” To the extent to which this is true (we’ll consider how American prisons approach issues of rehabilitation in my next blog), in the main this represents another, massive, failed experiment. Nearly half of all individuals who are put on probation never complete it (even THIS doesn’t work, for the minor offender). Nearly half of all individuals on parole return to prison without completing it successfully. More than 2/3rds of offenders who are sent to prison re-offend, and are re-incarcerated.
From a brain plasticity perspective — that is, from how we develop the Persons we are through environmentally-driven brain change — our approach to crime and punishment makes almost no sense. It is a monstrous and a growing failure. In the next blog, we’ll take another step in understanding why it doesn’t work by considering how we actually approach rehabilitation and societal re-introduction. We’ll then consider why the picture is so markedly different in some (not all) other advanced societies. In a final blog series, we’ll try to pose solutions that could make a large-scale difference, at the front-end (childhood) and at the back-end (for the young offender) of this enormous, destructive and incredibly costly American problem.