Habitual Criminals and What to Do With Them

Ambrose Bierce

San Francisco Examiner/June 11, 1903



The genial gentleman who is said to introduced into the Michigan legislature a bill providing for the destruction of feeble-minded children is a stride or two in advance of the procession moving from the darkness toward the light. His shadow as it lies along the roadway, is not pretty to look at, and one does not like to step in it. He is a shining example of the unreformable reformer, who, having caught a truth, doesn’t know what to do with it, yet has not the sense to let go.

If this reformer will not reform himself and really wishes to do something worthwhile in the way of bettering this world by removing some of its inhabitants to another, let him advocate the death penalty for incorrigible criminals. Society has an indubitable moral right to remove those of its members who will not live in harmony with its just and necessary requirements. We recognize this right by shutting them up for a few years, but we weakly renounce it when we release them to resume their offensive ways. A first term of imprisonment may be reformatory; a few scattering instances of persons who have “lived down” their past show that it sometimes is. Even a second conviction has been known to open the convict’s eyes to the advantage of limiting his pernicious activity to allowable offenses, cheating, for example, in place of theft. For a “third termer”‘ there is no future but one of alternating crime and punishment; he can enter prison without the fear that it will do him good.

The first or the second felony is the felon’s fault; for the third and all subsequent ones the state is to blame. If we had a sensible regard for the interest of all, the just and the unjust alike, there would be no such thing as “life of crime”; no such thing as the “criminal class.” Occasional offenses against the laws there will always be—offenses committed by uncontrolled impulse under powerful temptation or provocation, but of planned and calculated crime we could rid ourselves in two generations. There should be nobody having the disposition to commit them.

Surely the most astonishing phenomenon of nature is the patience with which good citizens. endure the outrages of the bad. In every age and every country the awful warfare between them gees on, class against class, the good always victorious, yet never pushing the fight to a finish, never compelling a final peace. Century after century we suffer this rabble of degenerates, fully identified and avowedly impenitent, to conduct their irritating hostilities against property and life, while we have it in power to put an eternal end to the aggression by the simple, easy and merciful method of putting an end to the aggressors.

There are other methods besides exterminatlon, but none so effectual. If it were not for the soft-hearted and soft-headed “executives” and “boards of pardons” perpetual imprisonment would be possible. But that would mean an expensive remedy. It would mean so great a multiplication of prisons and their personnel as to entail a crushing rate of taxation. This generation, not itself conspicuously benefited, would hardly undertake to do so much for posterity. The criminals have no right to so lenient treatment. They have no right to anything, not even, as this proposal assumes, to life.

Other plans for bringing this immemorial “class war” to an end cannot be discussed here. Nor is there much hope that discussion of any plan will do any good. The war with the criminals, “bequeathed from bleeding sire to son,” is so familiar a condition of human existence as to be respected. Like other established things, its ceasation cannot without difficulty be conceived as possible, nor felt as desirable. Sub-consciously the average man is no doubt somewhat attached to it as one of the trials which it has pleased the Creator to send upon a sinful world. Nevertheless I venture to declare my individual belief that there should be no such person living as an “habitual criminal.”

(Source: https://www.newspapers.com/image/457388630/?terms=by%2BAmbrose%2BBierce)


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