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One shall be taken, and the other left...

By Diogenes (articles ) | Oct 25, 2003

The Cape Cod Times has an ugly and unsettling story on the incarceration and release of convicted child-rapist Paul Nolin, now alleged to have murdered a 20-year old he met at a gay party. Nolin's brutality is shocking, but hardly less disturbing is the journalist's claim that a man's imprisonment can be ended or continued at the pleasure of experts:

[Nolin] was sentenced in 1983, but was transferred to the state's Treatment Center for Sexually Dangerous two years later. He eventually sought release from the center, where he could have been held indefinitely if the "sexually dangerous" designation had been maintained.

I hope the story is simply in error about the legal possibility of indefinite detention. The point is not that Paul Nolin didn't deserve to be in prison, but rather that if therapeutic criteria decide the issue, the notion of deserving or not deserving is entirely beside the point. C.S. Lewis stated the case masterfully in an essay called The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment:

It may be said that by the continued use of the word punishment and the use of the verb 'inflict' I am misrepresenting Humanitarians. They are not punishing, not inflicting, only healing. But do not let us be deceived by a name. To be taken without consent from my home and friends; to lose my liberty; to undergo all those assaults on my personality which modern psychotherapy knows how to deliver; to be re-made after some pattern of 'normality' hatched in a Viennese laboratory to which I never professed allegiance; to know that this process will never end until either my captors have succeeded or I grown wise enough to cheat them with apparent success -- who cares whether this is called Punishment or not? That it includes most of the elements for which any punishment is feared -- shame, exile, bondage, and years eaten by the locust -- is obvious. Only enormous ill-desert could justify it; but ill-desert is the very conception which the Humanitarian theory has thrown overboard.

Note that the psychologists who examined Nolin disagreed as to whether he was "sexually dangerous" or not. Note too that the determination reflects not only each expert's professional assessment of Nolin, but his amateur philosophising about what healthy sexuality means. Consider the notions of what does and does not constitute permissible sex that are common in academia -- including psychology departments -- today. Consider too the general tendency of the courts on what are euphemistically called "lifestyle" issues. Do we really want those whom the universities have judged to be experts in sexuality to decide who among us goes free and who is a menace to the well-being of the community?

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Show 2 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: AveMaria580 - Oct. 25, 2003 1:46 PM ET USA

    It is far past time that we realized that psychology is a "soft" science. There are really no "laws" in psychology such as in math, biology or chemistry. Operational definitions are determined by the researcher and no matter how careful the psychologist is personal bias will affect the operational definitions. An abstract idea can be given any definition a person chooses because there are no "absolutes." Bias can cause a person so see black as white or pathology as sanity.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Oct. 25, 2003 10:57 AM ET USA

    A very good point, Diogenes, and a very valid fear. The increasing ambiguity of what constitutes moral and amoral behavior today makes it imperative that we as a society move away from "therapeutic" incarceration which often involves purely subjective judgements of "therapists" without regard to personal liberties and more toward "criminal" incarceration which is based solely on objective criteria, already pre-defined by law.

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