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Ending political correctness and reforming our justice system

By Michael Keane - posted Tuesday, 13 September 2011

To paraphrase a line from former US President Bill Clinton's campaign, "it's not the alcohol, stupid." The confluence of a number of recent phenomena should serve as a catalyst for a complete policy overhaul of criminal sentencing in order to return justice to the criminal-justice system.

Firstly, whether or not the number of serious offenses is actually rising, the public perceives evermore intimidation. People are genuinely afraid for their safety in public and are avoiding certain areas; something that should be an anathema in a civilized society.

Secondly, there is growing dissent against the theory that crime is a function of social disadvantage. For decades the prevailing group-think has lead the academic and cultural elite to the solidly entrenched belief that violent crime can be remedied by social engineering, social intervention and more "services" to help those "vulnerable" people who are susceptible to criminal behaviour; in other words it is all society's fault.


Within the current pervasive academic and legal ideology, there is a systematic inability to attribute blame for even the most despicable behaviour. Indeed those who raise concepts such as individual responsibility and blame are spurned as being simplistic, Neanderthal-like reactionaries.

Violent crime is excused amidst impressive phrases such as alcohol use disorder and random acts of life-ruining aggression are medicalized with reference to terms such as anti-social personality disorder and intermittent explosive disorder. While it is legitimate to study and further our understanding of human behaviour it is hopelessly naive to think that we can simply understand the causes of crime and prevent it by appropriate intervention. This approach, far from being sophisticated, is more akin to an expression of superstition.

Yes, you can indentify differences in brain chemicals and yes there are differences in psychological profiles and, yes, scans can most certainly demonstrate differences in the brains of violent criminals. But that also goes for every aspect of the human condition such as love, hope, despair, artistry, complex thought etc. In a free society, there are almost infinite combinations of factors that can contribute to any act of criminal violence. Ultimately, however we need to identified the perpetrators of such violence for what they are: criminals.

The very essence of being human is the capacity to experience terrible suffering. As a society, we should be ever willing to help those poor souls who are biologically and psychologically afflicted with the capacity for dysfunction. But to give a free pass to a thug and excuse violent behaviour on things such as substance abuse and anger management dysfunction is to do a terrible disservice to the vast majority of people in similar socio-economic circumstances who don't commit assault, rape, murder and the like. In other words "it's not the alcohol, stupid."

The public, despite instincts to the contrary, have felt compelled to defer to the politically-correct elite. Surely they must be right, aren't they the experts? There must be science and data to justify giving a violent thug a social worker rather than a ten year sentence?

It is important that the public understand that this current fashion is in the realm of belief, ideology or even pseudo-religious superstition. Concepts such as rehabilitation, restorative justice and "the vulnerable" are merely emotional expressions of an ideology. To be sure, appropriate sentencing cannot be a matter of simple reference to science or objective data. A sentence is always a trade off between multiple opposing issues. Therefore sentencing is a matter of opinion and philosophy and depends on the weighting society gives to the well being of victims versus criminals. Observation and objective data can inform but never dictate such matters. No study can demonstrate whether it is prudent or not to impose tough sanctions against criminals. As part of my job I regularly see the misuse and politicising of "the evidence".


In the context of reference to science and objectivity there is an ongoing debate about whether punitive sentences reduce violent crime. There are many issues at play here. One is the distinction between whether the threat of a long prison sentence deters a criminal on any given occasion versus whether incarcerating the small minority of the population who commit the majority of violent crime for long periods reduces the crime rate by taking them off the street. The current establishment ridicules the concept of being "tough on crime" as being ineffective. However, studies that would need to be done to adequately address this question are several orders of magnitude more complex than the sort of inadequate surrogate data that is provided by the elite. So the answer is elusive, however readers need to understand that there is no evidence to prove that these strategies don't work and if anything there is data to suggest that tough sentencing does reduce crime.

However, regardless of whether tough sentencing reduces crime there needs to be an acceptance of what has been obvious throughout the ages; that there is a real tangible benefit to the victims of crime in punishing the criminal. We must acknowledge that injustice can be one of the most potent causes of emotional and psychological carnage. No reasonable person can argue against that. Why do people scream with joy when a criminal is convicted? Why do we glorify people who devote their lives to bringing criminals to justice? Why do victims' relatives lobby so vigorously to prevent murderers receiving parole?

Injustice can lead to life-long suffering including chronic anguishing flashbacks, torturous obsessive thoughts about the incongruity of the justice system, recurrent sleep problems, morbid depression and even psychosis. We know that these symptoms are representative of changes in the structure and function of the brain. Nerve buds (synapses) grow and others regress; chemical mediators and receptor proteins change; the fundamental milieu of the brain cells is altered. This is basic neuropsychology 101.

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This article was first published on Menzies House on September 12, 2011.

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About the Author

Dr. Michael Keane is Adjunct Associate Professor with interests in ethics, human factors engineering, health economics and substance abuse; adjunct lecturer in public health; specialist anaesthetist.

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