If crime were a physical disease the relationship between shared and individual responsibility would be clearer. Public health innovations like sewers and clean water supplies obviously decrease the occurrence of certain diseases. Inoculations are intended not only to improve the health of those who receive them, but also to lower the incidence of disease in a community, so that even those who don’t get shots have a better chance of ducking disease. It is possible to create an environment less hospitable to contagious disease.
There is another class of illness though, degenerative disease. It includes heart disease, type two diabetes, stroke, and osteoarthritis, among others. In these diseases, public health can do relatively little to improve a patient’s chances. The subject must act for himself. Degenerative diseases are held at bay, not always but quite often, by choices an individual makes. Someone may decide to exercise, to do yoga to reduce stress, to watch their diet and their drinking, and to take their medicine. Or she may decide to live on fries and Jack with a water back.
Of course crime is not exactly analogous to illness. But there are social situations that promote crime the way dirt promotes disease. Poverty promotes crime, when its victims are denied access to education because their schools are inadequate or unsafe. Poverty promotes crime when a mother feels she must work long hours to support her children, and must spend more hours getting to work because she lacks a car. Lack of parental supervision certainly favors crime. Poverty promotes crime when families that could be helped by counseling cannot afford it.
Social attitudes promote crime. When celebrities are not punished for obvious crimes, when criminals are admired, if they are even tolerated, society promotes crime. If we all need heroes, why not admire people who see that children get shots, that old people stay warm, or that the sick get treatment?
A society that promotes the drug culture promotes crime too. Either we should make drugs completely legal, and take the profit out of the crime, or we should make the cost of dealing and doing drugs so high that no one will want to take the chance. If we eliminate the crimes done for drugs, or done for drug money, there will be far less crime in the world.
At the same time, addictive drug use is a choice, at least at first. Why should society feel responsible for someone’s choice of this self-destructive behavior? Absolutely everyone knows, before they ever try it, that it will lead to their life’s ruin. Once addicted, drug addicts should still be offered options. It should be clear though, that it is the addict’s own choice whether or not to participate in treatment.
A child whose parents are criminals, or whose opportunities are few, has limited choices. The child with brain damage because of maternal drinking or physical injury or a host of other conditions also has decreased responsibility. The law also makes allowances for crimes committed in the ignorance of youth. But each person has responsibility for the course of his or her life as an adult.
It is not hard to hear someone explain how nothing whatsoever that has happened to him in life was his fault. Just go sit in the visiting room at any jail. It is certainly true that everyone’s choices are limited, but everyone has choice. Not everyone knows it.
To say that our bad experiences are not at least to some degree our own fault is to say that we are powerless over our own lives. If someone else has caused all my misery then I am a helpless puppet. My life will always be a mess. If I myself am doing something counterproductive, and if I can figure out what it is, then I really can change my life. No one has to be a criminal.