Does society at large bear some responsibility for the damage and misery caused by crime? Or should we hold the individual criminal solely responsible? What does the term “responsibility” entail anyway? In attacking the problem of crime, what balance between shared and personal responsibility should we, as a free society, seek?
*Society’s responsibility in crime
To a certain extent, society has always been at least an “enabler” of crime. Often some societies have been so unjust that their criminal justice system was simple social control of the underclass. As civilization has progressed towards more equality and enlightened handling of deviance the balance of responsibility has gradually shifted towards the lawbreakers. Nevertheless, our modern criminal justice system to a large extent is largely unable to do not much more than punish crime. In the United States, the system is overloaded as the majority of criminals plea bargain and our prison system nevertheless strains from overcrowding.
Many argue that our system is broken and that it most be reformed to treat “criminals” who are confined for drug use/trafficking or have been convicted of sex crimes. “Hard-core” criminals, some argue should be actively rehabilitated and paroled so that they can “recover” and return to society. Then there is the “social justice” argument that points to the conditions that generate crime and criminals. Inner city slums, poor schools and generational welfare that lead to teen pregnancy and self-perpetuating misery are problems we must fix if we want to reduce crime.
*The individual’s responsibility
There would, of course, be no crime were it not for the criminal. Many argue that society does not do such a bad job in teaching its members to behave. What other explanation is there for the fact that 99 percent of us never have any problems with the law? The argument continues: Those who commit crimes simply lack self-control, conscience, or social responsibility. Maybe some criminals have had a bad break and lived in crime and poverty, but most people, regardless of background overcome and live law abiding lives.
Our penal system certainly recognizes that the individual bears the personal and absolute responsibility for commiting a crime. Even those who are not mentally competent can expect to be removed from circulation if they are dangers to the community. The adage, “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time” certainly always applies when it comes to individual responsibility.
*What responsibility means
In the context of the problem of crime, responsibility simply means, “Whose fault is it? Who should be held responsible?” As an ethical or ideological concept, it implies a high standard of behavior that puts the welfare of the many over the individual, while maintaining justice and fairness to those who stray.
Society has a responsibility to do what it can to teach its members to behave well and respect the rights of others, to oversee an equitable and fair criminal justice system, and to isolate those truly incorrigible few who prey on others. Individuals, by the same token, are responsible for keeping their end of the “social contract,” which is nothing more than voluntary good behavior and respect for others.
*The balance we need
The balance is a simple recognition of the division of responsibility mentioned above. It is a recognition that society with its flawed bureaucracy and enforcement systems is at least as fallible as the individual who violates the law. It is also a recognition that our criminal justice system can be as much a steam roller as a guardian.
Finally, we should recognize that our own attitudes towards crime, criminals and our justice system may be influenced by political, social or even racial bias. Some wag once joked that a conservative is a former liberal who was mugged after a fund raiser, and a liberal is a former conservative who was beaten up by a cop after a political rally.