A few years ago, the Bangor Daily News published a column titled, “If calling two killers ‘evil’ is wrong, I’ll gladly ride to hell with retired detective Brian Strout.”
The piece argued that the Maine Prison Advocacy Coalition’s objections to a police officer’s characterizations of murderers as “evil” was silly. Of course, these men are evil — the very epitome of the word. As evidence that the men are evil, writer Renee Ordway provided the definition of the term: “profoundly immoral, malevolent, wicked, bad, vicious.”
The crimes described in the article — rape, assault, murder — are clearly evil. But the characterization of criminals as evil — or, more popularly, “ pure evil” — implies more than that the act was “bad” or “vicious.” It implies that the individual himself or herself is inherently flawed and, importantly, will never change.
Thinking that way about other people serves several purposes. First, it provides a moral judgment to dissuade others from taking similar lines of action. Second, it allows us “normals” a degree of separation from the “evils.” Third, and perhaps most importantly, it drives the way we treat the people who have done bad things.
If as a society we believe there are some people who are fundamentally malicious or vicious, that it is ingrained in every fiber of their being, how should we respond to their crimes? Rehabilitation won’t work under that belief system, and neither will some short period of confinement, in which we hope the perpetrator will “learn their lesson.” Research, in fact, shows that those who believe some people are “pure evil” are more likely to endorse the death penalty, long sentences and life in prison without parole.
The problem I have with the pure evil approaches is not with the morality of the argument nor whether someone will be offended by it. My quibble has to do with what data say. If pure evil exists, then some non-trivial segment of the population, one would expect, would be persistently criminal all through life. Nothing would help them change their behavior.
But a growing body of research in criminology, which has taken off in the last 20 to 25 years suggests that not only is change possible, it is the norm for even the most “hardened” of offenders. In some ways, criminologists have always known that there is a relationship between age and crime, in which crime and deviant behavior increase through adolescence and early adulthood and then declines thereafter — this relationship has been dubbed the “ age-crime curve.”
The phenomenon characterizing the decline in the frequency and prevalence of crime over time is known as “desistance” in criminology and is the subject of my recent book, “ Desistance from Crime: New Advances in Theory and Research.” In that book, I chronicle the historical and recent work addressing desistance — what it is, when it happens, why it happens and what it means for policy and practice.
Anyone familiar with the world of academia will not be surprised that there are many unanswered questions within desistance research. Yet the reality of desistance is no longer seriously in dispute. As life-course criminologists Robert Sampson and John Laub find, in their study of offenders to age 70, “ crime declines with age even for active offenders.” Of course, some individuals continue to offend later than others and seem more immune to rehabilitation efforts, but the best evidence we have today suggests that most offenders, even the “vicious” ones, stop committing crimes over time at some point in their lives, and that typically happens relatively early.
Society sometimes needs to be protected from particular individuals. But the mindset that there are “wicked people” out there may lead to inefficient, ineffective and ultimately unjustifiable justice policies.
If the goal of the criminal justice system is to protect the community, overly long sentences that keep people locked up past the age at which they are likely to desist waste precious resources. It is not necessary to keep most offenders incarcerated for the rest of their lives or execute them to keep the rest of us safe. Even if there are some truly “evil” people who cannot change, there is no way to know that in advance. Thus, we risk locking away for long periods of time a large segment of the population that poses little to no risk to society.
And that’s the beauty of desistance research. It shows us that the majority of people “make good” at some point in early adulthood. Society should help them get there rather than erecting roadblocks.
Michael Rocque is an assistant professor of sociology at Bates College in Lewiston. He is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.