SEPTEMBER 12, 1962
NEW YORK—Farsightedd plans by Commissioner of Correction Anna M. Kross to bring about reforms in New York's penological system should spur citizens everywhere to look anew at the background of crime and punishment in our society.
In the Middle Ages criminals were virtually extirpated from society. The punishment of even minor crimes was fearfully severe, and execution of sentence was often gleefully witnessed by large crowds in what amounted to a public holiday. It never seemed to have occurred to anyone that "but for the grace of God there might I be," and it took centuries before this harsh approach was modified.
The relatively modern concept of imposing penalties corresponding to the gravity of the offense was a great step forward. But such laws are still punitive rather than reformatory in character. All our other safeguards of individual rights, in fact, would seem to be in conflict with this philosophy of criminal law, and many states have felt it necessary to make provisions in their constitutions that would correct this disparity. In substance, these provisions hold that the enforcement of the criminal law shall be based upon reformation and not upon "vindictive justice."
The modern philosophy of rehabilitation embraces three steps: probation, institutional training and treatment, and parole. It is still very difficult for many people to accept the idea that a primary function of penal and corrective institutions is rehabilitation. One of the questions most frequently brought up is how best to protect society. Are prisons most effectively operated primarily for custody and punishment, or do they insure society greater safety if during custody they bring about some form of rehabilitation.
Many people feel that one of our most important tasks in the criminal field is to prevent the deterioration of a child who goes from the reformatory to the prison for young offenders and, finally, to the regular criminal prison. I have an old friend, a woman who has worked all her life in various institutions, who feels that our society has failed the adolescent and that the responsibility should lie now largely with the schools. She is especially concerned about the harm done to young adolescents when they are first taken into court, and feels that our duty is to protect these children and prevent the the troubles which they get into in adolescent years.
This is asking a great deal, of course, of the schools. Teachers will have to learn how to watch their young pupils, and will also have to be trained in how to get across the stresses and strains, physical and emotional, of this period. I am still very uncertain about how much can be done along these lines, but that we should make an effort to improve our present procedure is unquestionable. The earlier we begin to reach young people, the easier it will be to keep them out of serious trouble.
The rehabilitation of older persons of course raises different questions. Commissioner Kross says: "What is required is a massive effort, a well organized and cooperatively endowed structure to replace the present individual and haphazard efforts of attacking the problem in toto." She adds: "It is not study alone, nor treatment alone, nor so-called preventive measures alone, that will furnish the ultimate answer. It is the rare art of thinking, of exercising the foresight required, to work out together the meaning and the proper application of behavioral research, that may some day reveal the secret of success."
Our total bill for crime in the United States is 20 billion dollars each year. It does not seem very valid to refuse the investment of a comparatively minor sum to supply the intelligent planning and foresight that alone can cut this bill down to a size commensurate with outlays in other fields of human endeavor and improvement. Crime flourishes in every big city and in many small cities and rural areas. It concerns every citizen, for it is not always the poor who are involved in crime. People in the higher income brackets are frequently involved in criminal procedure because somewhere along the line they failed to recognize the ethics of a situation. Again, we often find the children of the rich not trained in the simplest principles of morality and ethics. This is a pitiful criticism of our own life, of the influence of the churches and even, I think, of the influence of our teachers.