How Do We Prevent Crime?

How do we reduce the prison population or prevent crime? I have come to view the solution to those apparently serious problems as more or less trivial compared to the more serious problems involved for all of us if our society increasingly, as it seems to, rears and rewards psychopathy. Most especially so in a world with weapons of mass destruction.

How do we go about the task of decreasing the number of psychopaths or the amount of psychopathy in our society?

To me it is the same question as "How do we increase the number of people in our society who have well-developed capacities for trust, for empathy, and for affection?" A few of the steps that could be taken seem fairly obvious:

Since the earliest years are crucial, we should scrutinize every program and policy affecting infants and toddlers and ask ourselves "Whose needs are being met?" There should be a clear recognition that the only meaningful measure of success in child rearing is an adult with highly developed capacities for trust, empathy, and affection. It follows that the current worship of child rearing practices that evoke the highest possible I.Q., or the child with the greatest possible number of factual crumbs by the lowest age, or the child who can play the cello best at the earliest age should be suspect. Suspect because they may conflict with child rearing practices that produce an adult with well developed capacities for the qualities essential to harmonious co-operative human existence.

Insofar as it is the quality of emotional care during childhood that seems most crucial to the development of these capacities, attempts to raise the status of parenting would seem obligatory. In a society in which it is possible to market the most useless junk, it should not be difficult to enhance "consumer taste" (through modern marketing techniques) for what is probably the most important job anyone can do - the nurturing of a new member of society.

It seems peculiar in a society in which schooling is mandatory from age 6 to 16 that we turn out graduates who have no preparation for the one job they are almost certain to have - raising children. Surely, before conception is a possibility, boys and girls should appreciate the permanent emotional damage that can result if the emotional needs of a young child are not met.

It seems incredible to me that as a society we don't publicly advocate those values upon which all harmonious social interaction depend - trust, empathy, and affection. Why shouldn't society - all of us collectively - reinforce our own latent awareness that these values are where it's at, and why shouldn't we do this at least as frequently and effectively as we allow ourselves to be reminded to drink Coca-Cola?

If we really want a society that selectively fosters and rewards selfishness, envy, and greed in pursuit of endless consumption of misnamed "goods", then we should at the very least make all of the consequences of those values clear to everyone, including all the implicit personal and social costs.

Why won't such preventive measures be taken? There are many factors. In part, it is because we are presently attuned to a shorter time frame politically and psychologically than prevention necessitates. In part we are misled by the excitement and drama of intervention after a problem has occurred. The cops and robbers game for example is the stuff of much of our entertainment. In part it is because today's casualties have greater motivation to lobby for their own immediate needs than for prevention of tomorrows' victims. In part it is because an impossible level of proof is demanded whenever we discuss changes that appear to tamper with our present values. But mostly we just know that such proposed solutions to crime prevention are "naively idealistic."

From my perspective the naive idealism is in the minds of those who believe that we will survive as a species without soon taking action to prevent future generations of those who, as Cleckley says, are so bleached of emotion that they are "invincibly ignorant of what life means to others." And begin advocating those societal values upon which all harmonious social interaction depends.

Excerpted from a paper entitled "Prisons, Psychopaths and Prevention", presented at the Second World Congress on Prison Health Care, Ottawa, 1983.

Elliott Barker, M.D., D. Psych, F.R.C.P. (C), is the Director of the Canadian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the Editor of the journal Empathic Parenting.

Presented with permission of the author.

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