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A humanist perspective on crime and punishment

Carrie Thomas

Carrie Thomas is a humanist who offers non-religious pastoral support in HM Prison Pentonville. She also helps to train others to offer support in prisons and hospitals. She believes that there are times when we all need someone who is willing to listen, that everyone deserves compassion, and that each of us is capable of change. Below she provides a humanist perspective on crime and punishment.

Working in prisons and for criminal justice charities has opened my eyes. I had read about crime and punishment, but my experience has shown me much more.

Money and poverty may play a part in crime, but they are not the most important parts. It is the care and love we get when we grow up that influences how we manage as a teenager and an adult. Not everything comes naturally. Our family, friends, and teachers teach us how to behave by their example. They help us to learn how to control our emotions. They show us how to be, or not to be, a part of, and responsible to, our community. The texture of our emotional background shapes our behaviour. It can make us emotionally strong or it can lead to our being unwell, and it has a massive impact on whether or not we will commit a crime.

We punish people who behave badly, who break laws. We do this to show our disapproval, to make amends to the victims of crime, and hopefully to persuade those who have committed crimes to behave better in future. That makes sense, but it isn’t enough. If we just punish people who are already struggling and don’t know how to behave better, or may not even be aware that they are behaving badly, it won’t help. They can end up just resenting those who make and implement the laws, and then further bad behaviour might follow. We want things to get better, not worse.

We can all learn how to behave differently, but we may need encouragement, emotional support, and practical help to change. Many people in prison cannot read or write well; many cannot add up. They need help to learn these skills. Many are addicted to alcohol and drugs. They need support to get clean and to find a new way to live. Many have never had a job. They need help with training and assistance to get one.

To have a healthy society, we need to be responsible for all the people in it. When people leave prison or finish community service, their behaviour should be transformed so that they can be welcomed back into society. True rehabilitation helps someone give up crime; it makes them want to be someone who behaves legally and contributes to society.

Offenders, however much the media wants to make us terrified of them, are some of the weakest members of our society. It has been said that how we treat the weakest members of our society is the true test of a civilisation. I agree. Only by actively helping people who have committed crimes to change their behaviour can we have a society that includes and benefits all, a society of which we can be proud. That is what I want.

Question: Should rehabilitation be the primary purpose of prisons?

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This article is from the free online course:

Humanist Lives, with Alice Roberts

Humanists UK