Harm vs. Crime

If you think about all of the harm done in the world, and everything labelled as a “crime”, there is less overlap than you’d think.

For example, we know that chronic emotional or verbal abuse is at least if not more harmful than physical abuse, but physical abuse is illegal and emotional abuse isn’t.

Wars are immensely harmful. While there are “war crimes”, the harm of war itself is not a crime. It is a “legitimate” form of murder and destruction of property. Why?

Many actions taken by corporations, governments, and other large organizations are quite harmful, but are legal.

We have assigned meanings to different kinds of harm, and these meanings are not neutral.

They have consequences. They privilege and exempt some kinds of harm while heavily punishing other kinds of harm.

I’m not arguing that we should make more things illegal. I’m actually saying the opposite–that the whole concept of “crime” is flawed. Attempts to reduce “crime” are usually harmful themselves. For example, arresting and imprisoning someone is a violent, traumatizing act. We justify this harm by saying the crime was a greater harm, but in what Universe does doing more harm reduce harm? It doesn’t. The idea that it may prevent future harm is theoretical–sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. But imprisonment is a guaranteed real harm. Our penal system harms prisoners, victims of crime, families of prisoners, and society as a whole.

I think we need to shift from a crime-punishment model to a harm-reduction model.

This is currently being done in some places with drug use, which is being increasingly seen as a public health issue and not a moral issue. But I would argue there is good evidence that violence is also a public health issue for many of the same reasons. Corruption is also, if not a public health issue, definitely a public issue.

Crime is mostly concerned with interpersonal harm, when much of the harm we experience is enacted upon us at a societal level. It’s illegal for a parent to starve their child or not provide them medical care, but it’s not illegal for a country to starve its populace or make medical care prohibitively expensive. Poverty is extremely harmful, but a crime model doesn’t see that harm as actionable. It becomes a matter of politics instead, leading to endless debates that never change the basic reasons poverty exists.

This isn’t a simple rethinking; it would require a thorough reconceptualizing of the concepts of harm and social responsibility. I don’t think we’re really going to solve our social problems without doing this.

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