Home > Books, Legal, Music > Surely You’re Joking About the Criminal Justice System, Mr. Feynman!

Surely You’re Joking About the Criminal Justice System, Mr. Feynman!

Earlier this year, a friend sent me a copy of Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character), the oral memoir of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard P. Feynman. Upon completion, as the title implicitly promises, the reader is left with a strong sense of Feynman’s character: extremely self-confident, but never taking things too terribly seriously. While he credits the latter– a sort of everyman approach to life’s puzzles and adventures– for allowing him to take creative approaches to problem solving in physics and otherwise, it may be something of an outer surface he projects on top of his self-assured and extremely intelligent individuality. He doesn’t not remind me of Randy Pausch, late author of The Last Lecture. Still, Feynman is able to illustrate his developing personality over time, and stories about his time in Los Alamos, Brazil, and Las Vegas are fun and show readers a very well-rounded individual who could do plenty more than model nuclear physics.

Ninety-five percent of the book is Feynman telling stories, but he steps back at the end to offer some broader, more philosophical observations on the world after relating his time attempting to hallucinate with Dr. John C. Lily. Feynman expressed concern that, despite all of the scientific advances of the twentieth century, he was not living in a truly scientific age writ large because people continued to adhere to beliefs and take actions even though these approaches wouldn’t stand up to logical examination. Simply, Feynman wanted to apply the scientific method to everything and ask, for example, what educators were thinking about their new models for teaching reading when literacy and reading test scores were not improving as a result of these new approaches.

Another example is how to treat criminals. We obviously have made no progress– lots of theory, but no progress– in decreasing the amount of crime by the method that we use to handle criminals.

Richard P. Feynman, Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character) 340 (W. W. Norton & Company 1985).

There’s a lot to be said about our criminal justice system and its failures, with particular comment on incarceration rates, racial prejudices, narcotics policy, and the death penalty, among other topics, but the semi-stated assumption in Feynman’s observation, that the goal of the criminal justice system is to reduce crime, seems worth examining in the first instance.

In discussing the theories that guide our criminal justice system, two apparently competing approaches are most prominent. One is the rehabilitative theory, which argues that the purpose of the system is to limit recidivism by teaching convicts how to become functional, productive members of society. The retributive theory, by contrast, is focused on punishment, attempting to balance the scales for the wrong done to the victims of the crime by exacting punishment on the convicted criminal.

Notably, both of these theories look at how we should treat a person following conviction. While Feynman may be making indirect reference to the rehabilitative approach– by processing all criminals through a rehabilitative program we build up the particularly (legally) depraved among us and thereby reduce recidivism and thus decrease crime rates– I read him as criticizing the failure to reduce crime in the first instance, which is the reading that gave me pause. That’s because the “science” of criminal justice does not appear to address reducing crime in the first instance.

There probably are a few reasons for the preference for an ex post approach over an ex ante one. First, there is a fear in criminal justice about the possibility of prosecuting “thought crime” that causes many to put on the brakes when it looks like things are moving toward punishing a person who is contemplating but has not actually begun to physically commit a crime. Second, there’s the possibly more monumental task that would be reforming the conditions of society generally such that fewer people committed fewer crimes, recognizing that there are a variety of individual and societal factors that drive criminal behavior.

Feynman’s criticism, and its incorporated assumption, therefore probably is slightly misguided. His broader point nevertheless is well-taken. For all the resources we expend on the criminal justice system, things don’t seem to be improving. While critics have identified numerous possible points of causation and adverse consequences, meaningful reform does not appear forthcoming.

More recent students of Dr. John C. Lily. (Click photo for sonic evidence.)

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