Does our criminal justice system punish offenders harshly enough or do convicted criminals deserve tougher penalties? Should civil society turn a blind eye to abuses and deprivation that people are subjected to in the prison system?
Or do people who commit crimes simply deserve any misfortune that falls upon them, ask experts in a new Australian-US study from Flinders University and Rutgers University.
Criminology researchers warn that indifference to the fate of offenders, both among the public and people in the criminal justice system, could discourage a safe and gradual road to rehabilitation.
“The implication is that these types of hostile beliefs and attitudes stand in the way of efforts towards criminal justice reform,” says Flinders University forensic psychology researcher and criminology lecturer Dr Melissa de Vel-Palumbo.
While the US leads the world in incarceration, with individuals entering jails more than 10 million times in 2020, Australia’s prison population has almost doubled in the past 15 years, from about 25,000 to 43,000 people. In 2020, Australia’s criminal justice system handled about 65,000 prisoners.
Such numbers underline that incentives for further criminal justice reforms are vital and need urgent support.
The criminologists say offenders are exposed to a range of deprivations and incidental harms that may be tolerated by those working in the system and by the public more broadly due to a deep-seated desire to see ‘bad’ people suffer.
For example, studies have found the public is often indifferent about police brutality toward criminal offenders, or the threat of COVID-19 spreading in prisons.
“When we see others in pain, sympathy is often the instinctive and expected response. Yet in some cases, we are indifferent to, and even take pleasure in, the suffering of others,” says study co-author Dr Colleen Berryessa, an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University in the US.
“How the public understands ‘criminality’ or wrongdoing has implications for attitude and endorsement of criminal justice policies, which are often at odds with what we know is needed for effective rehabilitation,” Dr Berryassa says.
The new study indicates that overly harsh treatment of offenders and stigma attached to them can often exacerbate crime.
“Ultimately we argue there could be efforts to reduce these kinds of character-based judgments in the community – particularly for people working within the criminal justice system,” the study concludes.
The study – ‘When bad things happen to rotten people: Indifference to incidental harms in the criminal justice system’ (2022) by Melissa de Vel-Palumbo and Colleen Berryessa – has been published in Psychology, Crime and Law.
The researchers aim to continue study into the psychology of character-based judgements of offenders, to highlight how violations of rights in the criminal justice system are often ignored and how biases and prejudice may manifest in policy-making.
Dr de Vel-Palumbo and colleagues previously investigated public perceptions about offenders’ “redeemability”, examining judgments about stigmatised groups such as sex offenders and those with mental impairment. Dr Berryessa’s work has also looked at similar judgments, including toward individuals with psychopathy and other mental illnesses, biosocial characteristics associated with offending, histories of child abuse, and sex offenders.