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On Punishment

by Steve Houseworth, MA


Another component of "THEFT TALK's" "focus on thinking" centers around the information people have and use to make their decisions. What most youth answer when asked "Why is it wrong to steal" is that "If I get caught I'll get in trouble". Basically the message is that it's wrong because I don't want to be punished for doing something wrong. However they completely miss the target, they do not answer the question. Their answers focus on If I get caught something will happen to me.

A counselor at the Juvenile Court in Clackamas County, Oregon shared with me Mark's thesis on "STEALING". Mark burglarized a house and stole money, wine and a motorcycle. The first sentence went like this:

I think it is wrong because you can get caught and getting caught means that you can get a criminal record and that can make it hard to get a job later on. Sometimes I just don't think of what I'm doing or the consequences. I'm not a thief, stealing is wrong.

I submit Mark is not processing adequate information in order to make a good decision about stealing. His first thought in the above sentence has two critical false focuses. First, he indicates that it is wrong to steal because he could get caught. If Mark doesn't get caught then is it wrong? Also, with that kind of thinking isn't the challenge now upon Mark to not get caught. With this information Mark can make but one logical conclusion (even though it results in a bad decision): if your going to steal don't be stupid, don't get caught. Now, from Mark's perspective if he doesn't get caught, has he done anything wrong?

Secondly, his focus was on not getting a criminal record (any form of punishment will fit in here). The fact is that people only steal when they think they won't get caught. If Mark thinks he won't get caught then he also thinks he wont have to worry about being punished. With our focus on thinking and with the information Mark is processing to make his decision, he has no reason not to steal.

Lets take a walk through the nanosecond of thinking a theft offender goes through just before stealing. If you were in a store and were thinking about stealing, the first thing you would do is ..... look around. And what would you be looking for? Cameras, mirrors, police, people, security, electronic tags etc. Now, you have done your scan you decide to "go for it" (steal the item), you think, believe, the odds are in your favor, you think you are not going to get caught. If you believe you're not going to get caught, then logically you believe you have avoided the punishment.

The following is a thesis from Bryce:

This summer I got busted (caught) for doing something real stupid, (I wonder if he thinks the stupid thing he did is getting busted), that I knew was wrong. But at the time I guess I just wasn't thinking. It wasn't like we planned to go into a house and steal, we just kinda stumbled upon it. It doesn't pay off to steal. For one it goes on your record (and that looks bad) and stays there for awhile. I didn't like being pushed on the ground and handcuffed and questioned for hours. People went by in their cars and looked at you as if you were a real criminal. I don't know if the rest of the guys learned a lesson, but I sure don't want to have to ride in the back of a police car ever again!

The difficulty with Bryce's thinking and Mark's thinking is that their focus is on fear of punishment. And in fact it is certain there will be a time in each of their lives when they are certain they wont get caught. If they are certain, in their own thinking, that they wont get caught then, at that critical moment, when they are making the decision to steal they wont worry about the punishment, the handcuffs, the police, the people driving by etc.

The child's version of this "Cop's and Robber's" thinking is the cookie jar story.

The adult version is the radar detector or when you're speeding and you look way up the road and on both sides, what are you looking for ... a police car. When you look in your rear view mirror, what are you looking for? When you go under an overpass and look over you right shoulder onto the on-ramp, what are you looking for..... a police car!

Craig was serving seven years in prison for armed robbery. I asked Craig why he had to serve so much time. He replied, "I don't know. I took a test that said I'm an anti-social personality. I should have shot the guy, I wouldn't have served any more time than I am now."

When I was a young boy I remember curiously walking up to the stove and putting my hand on a red hot burner. With no thought being necessary I jerked my hand away from that burner and looked at my fingers. I hurt so bad. My fingers burnt as if they were plastic fingers on a doll. I did not need to have multiple experiences to learn my lesson - I am confident I will never again knowingly put my hand on a hot burner. Wouldn't it be nice if we could have our children be burnt by the first item they try to steal and any item they might try to steal thereafter. Pain is an excellent teacher when it is certain and predictable. With the burner the lesson comes as a law of nature. If you touch a hot item it will always, without exception, provide certain and immediate and severe pain. There is no room to wonder if the pain will be there - it is certain. The reason the threat of punishment is not as effective when it comes to stealing is because the pain is not certain, immediate and severe. In addition, when touching a burner there is no prospective reward - there is only the prospect of pain. Under these circumstances to touch a burner a second time is a simple lesson in logic that even less intelligent people learn quickly and efficiently.

The fact is punishment will not stop your child from stealing. When they steal they think they will not get caught if they think they won't get caught then they also, naturally, think they won't get punished.

"THEFT TALK's" position on punishment: We need to continue to offer consequences for two reasons. (I prefer the word consequences as opposed to punishment because punishment suggests corporal punishment as opposed to other less physical, and more effective techniques.)

1. Consequences work to prevent particular incidences of theft. When people in the community know there are consequences for stealing they will not steal when the consequences are certain. e.g. if you are thinking about stealing and you see a security guard watching you and every move you make the certainty of getting caught (getting punished) will prevent that particular theft. Therefore consequences work to:
a) prevent thefts when the probability of getting caught is certain b) avert or deter some people from seriously going through the cops and robbers thinking process.

2. The second reason consequences are important has to do with sending a message to the individual offender and the community. If our community placed all shoplifters in prison for 20 years and put murders in jail for 30 days we would be sending the message that stealing is more serious than murder. On the other hand if we gave all shoplifters a $10 fine we would be sending the message that stealing is wrong but not all that wrong. Hence, it is important to affirm the fact that stealing is wrong and, if you get caught there will be a consequence. Consequences for stealing sends a community message and deters those who think they might get caught.

As a probation officer and in one of my first meetings with a new probationer I routinely have a serious talk with them about the concept of internal controls. I tell my probationers that they will be heavily externally controlled during the initial probation adjustment period and that my ultimate objective as a probation officer is to get them to develop a strong internal control system. The fact is they will not be able to depend on my judgment forever, they will not always have me hovering over them to assure they stay out of trouble they need to learn to make their own good judgments.

I recently had a conversation with a 3rd grade teacher who came to me and said, "I wish students would have self discipline (internal controls) when I am in the room they are well behaved and orderly (external controls are present) but when I leave (external controls no longer present) they go absolutely berserk. They become so unruly, they are simply out of control. This teacher needs to recognize her objective is to build in an internal control system. It can be done!

In regard to punishment we offer our offenders the following guarantee (each word is carefully chosen. Don't assume this is a sloppy sentence):

"If, your only reason to chose not to steal is the fear

of punishment - you will steal again".

It is certain that each of us will, someday, be in a situation where we THINK we won't get caught. If we believe we won't get caught, we won't worry about the punishment. Don't let the offender divert you in regard to this subject. Also, don't let them tell you they knew they were going to get caught. This kind of thinking occurs immediately after having gotten caught. Cops and robbers thinking occurs prior to committing the theft.


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If you don't like something change it; if you can't change it, change the way you think about it. 

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