A presenter years ago at a conference for treating sex offenders introduced his talk with a simple declaration that impressed me deeply. The rest of his presentation included similarly obvious but frequently neglected advice. I have had cause to apply it to other topics ever since. I paraphrase: Our first objective, perhaps our only objective, is the ongoing protection of society. Obtaining justice such that the victims, and society at large, feel satisfied is nice, but it is secondary to us. Treating and rehabilitating the patient is even less important, though that is our job in the system. Safety comes first, and should be guiding our decisions during every phase of treatment.
If you think this is obvious, and that you would of course have this perspective if you were treating sex offenders, and how could those idiots think anything else is the point, I declare to you that you are almost certainly kidding yourself. The general public thinks largely in terms of punishment, even revenge, making half-serious jokes about castration, prison rape, and wanting the offender to have long sentences in unpleasant conditions. Even at best, there is an emphasis on victims feeling that they have been heard or received justice, or more remotely, society’s overall impression that justice has been served. But feelings are unreliable. Sometimes the actions of the justice system and eventual result for the perpetrator have a great deal to do with how well the victim is able to get on with their life, sometimes they have little effect. The effect on society will have much less to do with justice and more to do with notoriety and impression. It’s nice if the victim feels satisfied. But it has nothing to do with decisions about the offender.
As for treatment and rehabilitation, it is not only that clinicians get tunnel-vision about their part, as most of us do about our own specialties and areas of interest. Successful treatment is a win-win-win. Society is safer, independent living is cheaper, and a damaged person gets a life. What’s not to like? Dude, you should be thanking us for fixing this, not coming in here and telling us our job isn’t very important.
As the speaker went on, I knew he had them for shock value, with his “obvious” statements. They were living in a world where everyone wanted to punish their patients, some of whom were better described as poor saps than perpetrators; yet clinicians fight their own feelings of punishment versus rescue. The success rate isn’t high, and each relaxing of the reins is frightening. Yet they dream of a better world, of fixing things.
During the Q&A, someone asked about allowing offenders in programs access to pornography, which at the time meant magazines. It was controversial, because of the Encouragement to Offend versus Safety Valve debate. The speaker shrugged. It might have a minor bad effect, on some people, so I’d probably discourage it if it were my program. But I’d let one of my guys have a whole stack of magazines before I let him have even a single can of beer. Again silence, shock, as everyone saw that this was not only true, but obviously true, though we (at that time) mentioned the effect of substance abuse on reoffending only in passing, a checkbox on a list of factors. The shaft went home, he had illuminated the target. Substance abuse is the solvent that destroys all your work. He added in brain damage, another factor that can trump all treatment. Or any indication that the molester is trying to set up some legitimate access to children. Look there, not elsewhere. All that discussion about whether the patient feels empathy…nearly irrelevant; discussion of the patient’s own abuse…nearly irrelevant; patient attitudes toward women, authority, sexuality, openness, honesty…same. Number of times they will see their parole officer in a week, what will happen if they miss an appointment, does the patient have a job…secondary. The only important questions are What will increase safety? How much? What will decrease safety? How much? It doesn’t matter what you think about pornography. It doesn’t matter if the victim has forgiven him. “But, but…” It doesn’t matter.
All of this the long way around to talk about gun laws.
“I don’t think people should be allowed to own guns whose only purpose is to kill large numbers of people.” Irrelevant. Show me the safety with Law A and without Law A.
“That rifle has enough range that it can pierce metal from a mile away!” Irrelevant. I’m looking at # of people killed overall.
“It fires a zillion rounds a minute…a seven-year-old can order a flame-thrower online…it’s legal to have a chainsaw bayonet…” Irrelevant.
“There are more gun deaths in America than…” Irrelevant. Nasty bombings and driving into crowds in London. Tell me the overall deaths, apples-to-apples, and how your proposed legislation will affect that.
“It’s easier to get a gun than a book on the South Side of Chicago.” Irrelevant. (Also crazily untrue, but I admit, that is also irrelevant.)
“People need a license and have to pass a test to drive a car, but anyone can just buy a gun.” Irrelevant. Show me the damage from that, not what you can imagine the damage might be, or what you think is fair. (And are you advocating a sex-having license as well?)
“The NRA buys politicians and has too much influence.” Irrelevant.
“No one needs to own that many guns.” Irrelevant. You don’t get to say what other people need. BTW, you said that about pickup trucks. Let me go through your house and start on what you don't need.
“People are anxious and afraid because they have insecurities about their (whisper, whisper)…” Irrelevant.
“Gun manufacturers are making money from this, that’s why they don’t care about children.” Irrelevant.
“If you bring a gun into your home the most likely person to be killed is a family member.” Irrelevant. Who is the most likely person to be protected? Compared to a random guy in Montana, sure. Most car accidents occur within fifteen miles of home. Do you think we should move?
“Children shouldn’t have to be afraid to go to school.” No, it’s how safe they are that’s relevant, not how safe they feel. How they feel has a lot to do with what the adults around them are doing.
What happens in other countries is partly relevant, but those numbers don’t say what opponents think they do. If you aren’t going to stick around for the discussion, then they are irrelevant too.
The constitutional arguments are interesting. I believe the gun controllers get them wrong, but those at least are relevant. The mental health arguments are also interesting and relevant. I think people talk a lot of nonsense about what is possible – nonsense on every side of the discussion here – but knowing rates of violence, accuracy of prediction, and what will actually reduce risk and how much it will cost is certainly relevant.
But much of what you will read and hear is irrelevant. People make these enormous logical leaps of
1. 1. NRA stops giving money to politicians
2. 2. We pass common sense legislation, Set 42 (magic beans)
3. 3. Fewer school shootings (giant slain)
1. 1. We make it really inconvenient to buy guns
2. 2. Bad people give up in frustration and gnash their teeth