Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Mitigation Response: Getting Smart on Crime

The French proverb has it that “tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner” – to understand all is to forgive all. Although it isn’t good interpersonal or social policy to forgive those who show no sincere signs of regret, or could continue to harm us, the saying nevertheless captures an important feature of human psychology. Understanding the causal antecedents of wrongful behavior, and more basically seeing that it had causal antecedents – it didn’t come out of the blue – often reduces blame focused on the offender. We see the role of the factors that created him and the opportunity for wrongdoing, and know that had those been different, he might well not have done wrong. This in effect distributes causal responsibility for the offense, so that the offender ceases to be an ultimate, point-like originator of action.

It’s appropriate that this change in our perception of causal responsibility mitigates perceived blameworthiness. To blame is to assign responsibility and seek redress, and as it becomes clear the offender is not self-made, but only the most proximate cause of harm, the smart course of action is to widen the scope of redress to include his causes – his formative environment and current situation. The tendency for blame focused on the offender to diminish in light of his causal story is an adaptive reallocation of emotional and attentional resources. It frees us up to consider a wider, more effective strategy in preventing future wrong-doings.

All this has implications for criminal justice, in that drawing attention to the causes of criminals, not just crime, might make us smarter in dealing with it. But just how real and robust is the psychological tendency described above, what we might call the mitigation response? Is there empirical evidence that understanding and appreciating causation actually reduces our desire to punish? Might it attenuate our desire for retribution, which aims only to inflict suffering on the offender, not produce good social consequences?

Some preliminary research supports these hypotheses. A series of studies conducted by psychologists Azim Shariff, Joshua Greene, and Jonathan Schooler indicates that heightening the salience of determinism reduces the attribution of moral blameworthiness, the perception of free will, and the desire for punishment (“Beyond Retribution?: Effects of Encouraging a Deterministic Worldview on Punishment,” in preparation). Individuals exposed to explicit arguments in favor of determinism and against free will, or (in another study) scientific articles merely suggestive of determinism, were less likely to impose long prison sentences on a hypothetical murderer. The results also indicated that imposing shorter sentences was mediated by reductions in perceived blameworthiness, arguably the main factor motivating retributive, as opposed to consequentialist, punishment (about the difference see here). It looks as though these experiments induced the mitigation response.

They also suggest that educating the public about causation, in particular that human beings and their acts are likely fully caused, might help shift our criminal justice priorities away from retributive punishment, the law’s current preoccupation, and toward prevention, rehabilitation and restitution, while maintaining deterrence and public safety. By widening the consideration of causes outside the perpetrator (but not forgetting him either!), the “deterministic worldview” can humanize criminal justice by motivating the idea that any suffering inflicted on him must have a solid consequentialist rationale: only inflict it if nothing non-punitive works to reduce the future harms coming from crime, and only if the suffering inflicted is less than the harm being reduced.

The mitigation response, generated by appreciating the offender’s causal history of being shaped by criminogenic influences, can thus play a role in changing attitudes about blame and punishment. We should take full advantage of it in crafting a humane and smart approach to crime reduction.

(About a smarter, less draconian approach to criminal justice, have a look at Mark Kleiman's appearance on Bloggingheads with Reihan Salam.)


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