Karl Menninger's The Crime of Punishment

To read Menninger today is itself punishment.


These days most people don't remember psychiatrist Karl Menninger. But in his day, he was an important public intellectual. His 1966 book The Crime of Punishment argued that all punishment is cruel and useless and that criminal behavior should instead be treated as mental illness. As Dr. Menninger put it, those who asked us to spare a thought for the victims were being "melodramatic" and "childish" and appealing only to the "unthinking."

I wrote about him in my individual Commissioner Statement in the recently-released report of the Commission on Civil Rights on police practices and criminal justice. It wasn't the main thrust of my argument. (My main point was that African-American rates of crime victimization are very high, that police have historically been less protective of African-American victims, and that reformers of police procedures need to be sensitive to this and avoid creating incentives for police to back off from combatting crime in African-American communities.)

But I couldn't help writing a bit about Menninger, since thinking like his is part of why the nation suffered soaring rates of crime in the late 1960s, 1970s and into the 1980s. The following Menninger quotes are from my Statement. (The italics are Menninger's)

"I suspect that all the crimes committed by all the jailed criminals do not equal in total social damage that of the crimes committed against them."

"And there is one crime we all keep committing, over and over. … We commit the crime of damning some of our fellow citizens with the label 'criminal.' And having done this, we force them through an experience that is soul-searing and dehumanizing."

"The inescapable conclusion is that society secretly wants crime, needs crime, and gains definite satisfactions from the present mishandling of it! We condemn crime; we punish offenders for it; but we need it. The crime and punishment ritual is a part of our lives. We need crimes to wonder at, to enjoy vicariously, to discuss and speculate about, and to publicly deplore. We need criminals to identify ourselves with, to secretly envy, and to stoutly punish. Criminals represent our alter egos—our 'bad' selves—rejected and projected. They do for us the forbidden, illegal things we wish to do and, like scapegoats of old, they bear the burdens of our displaced guilt and punishment—'the iniquities of us all.'"

As Menninger's and similar views become more common among policymakers, incarceration rates dipped, while crimes rates soared, especially in African-American neighborhoods in large cities. Meanwhile, he was given many honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Jimmy Carter.

We've been lucky in the last couple of decades. Crime rates are down (though they not yet down to what they were in 1960 and there has been a slight uptick in the last couple of years.) Let's face it: Part of that good fortune is due to our higher rates of incarceration.

(Note that while our rates of incarceration are indeed high relative to most other countries, international comparisons are sometimes misleading in that some other countries institutionalize more of the mentally ill, while the number of persons in mental institutions in the U.S. has dropped sharply from a high of about 550,000 in 1950 to about 30,000 in the 1990s. As a result, some of those who really would have been better treated in mental hospitals wind up in prisons today. In that sense, Menninger wasn't totally wrong, he was just ahead of his time.)

I don't doubt that things can be done to improve police practices in African-American communities (and indeed in all communities). I don't doubt that there are people who are incarcerated today who don't need to be. But … well … just don't get carried away. We've come a long way in the last couple of decades. Those who live in previously high-crime communities have benefited most. Let's be cautious. Let's not lose what we've gained.

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  1. some other countries institutionalize more of the mentally ill

    Indeed. There is a longstanding issue of US police being expected to deal with the mentally ill due to the absence of a proper healthcare system. That doesn’t just lead to the mentally ill being incarcerated with regular criminals, it also leads to them being shot by police at shocking rates.

    1. We don’t have a proper mental healthcare system in no small part because of the 1960’s as well: it was during this time that deinstitutionalization was pushed hard.

      Yes, there were abuses, particularly in the Soviet Union, and even in the United States, but the fact remains that there really are people who need institutionalization, but by making the standard “a danger to self or others” (and making the standard strict, at that — there have been cases where patients starved themselves to death, because refusing to eat wasn’t considered a danger to self) it has been difficult to institutionalize people who genuinely need help.

      1. “We don’t have a proper mental healthcare system in no small part because of the 1960’s as well: it was during this time that deinstitutionalization was pushed hard.”‘

        Pushed by liberals. Whose ideological descendants now complain about the effects,

      2. Deinstitutionization failed because conservatives refused to fund the support services these folks needed once they were on the “outside”.

        1. “XXXXX failed because conservatives refused to fund…..”

          I wish I had a dollar for every time I saw that line of logic.

          It may be true in this case, it is also unprovable. Maybe, maybe, you could show how it worked in another country with similar conditions to ours, and you can perhaps assume it would have worked for the U.S., but is there such a case?

        2. Both liberals and conservatives pushed this as a cost-saving measure.

          Additionally, there are a *lot* of people who need commitment in order to be properly cared for. Indeed, it isn’t unheard of for homeless people to have a surprisingly large amount of money from welfare in the bank (money I don’t begrudge — they clearly need it), and even an apartment, but nonetheless wander the streets because of their mental illness.

        3. “conservatives refused to fund the support services”

          Liberals controlled no funding?

          Even if what you say is true, it is totally foreseeable that out patient services are more easily chopped than brick and mortar spending. The institutions need at least minimal spending if only to avoid scandals.

        4. This gets funnier every time you hear it.

          Liberal: “The following policy, as it is written, will turn the USA into a land of milk and honey.”

          (…years pass, with nary a drop of milk and honey in sight.. )

          Liberals: “Our policy failed because conservatives are wreckers and saboteurs, and need to be sent to GULAG!!”

  2. Obviously deterrence thanks to incarceration is an important part of keeping crime rate low. However, you offer no evidence that the changes in crime rate had anything to do with changes in our willingness to imprison. Indeed, my understanding is that relative to the literature on deterrence we are well past the point of diminishing returns while other compelling explanations involving economic changes and changes in lead dosage have been cited as explaining the changes in crime rate.

    I’m willing to consider your argument but I’d like some kind of regression or other data analysis to at least suggest a causal link.

    1. Ideologues don’t need no steenking data.

      1. ‘We’ve gone too far with all of this damned progress, tolerance, science, liberty, and education’ appears to be the unifying principle underlying most right-wing prescriptions these days.

        Far more difficult to understand: How this blog — Heriot and Cassell on criminal law; Baker on surveillance and secrecy; Bernstein on libertarianism; Kontorovich on foreign affairs — hooked up with an ostensibly libertarian forum. I hope the reason.com editors weren’t desperate for companionship to the point at which they fell for the Volokh Conspiracy’s Tinder-style “Often libertarian” masthead.

        1. I would describe myself as, “often in Indianapolis”, if the subject comes up.
          How often would I need to be there before you would allow me to say that?
          And who appointed you the person in charge of the Oxford English Dictionary?

    2. Whatdaya want, a full-blown white paper for a blog post?

    3. I noticed that too, but then I assumed that she didn’t mean to rely on deterrence, but on the simple logic that people who are incarcerated are less likely to commit crimes. (Or at least less likely to commit crimes that anybody minds.) At some point if you lock up all low-education men under 30, you’re going to end up with a pretty low crime rate.

  3. Yes, Menninger talked nonsense, but where are the data to back up your statement that “incarceration rates dipped,” much less proof that Menninger caused the dip? In fact, judging from a graph shown in Wikipedia , combined federal and state incarceration rates declined in the sixties and then began to increase in the early seventies, rising sharply thereafter. I guess that medal Jimmy Carter gave Menninger didn’t have the causal value you’d like to attribute to it.

    This comment program won’t accept a “word” as long as the Wikipedia link, but the heading is “United States incarceration rate”

  4. Gail – this has all the sophistication of a university student grousing sophomorically over Foucault or Derrida. I’ll grant that translating Menninger’s observations into sound policy is not a task we can properly leave to politicians, and there might well not be any concrete way in which we should shape a penal policy around the understanding that criminal punishment is always an evil to be avoided. But here, you’re complaining, in essence, that you don’t understand what he wrote, and then you wave lazily at an historical, multi-decade decline in crime rates as caused by some hazily-indicated penal policy. It’s not a good look.

    1. “…we should shape a penal policy around the understanding that criminal punishment is always an evil to be avoided.”


      Assuming the guilty are the ones punished (and according to other blog posts the falsely imprisoned is less than 1% or so) why is punishment for breaking the law, “evil”?

      1. 1. Most behaviorists will tell you that punishment is not as effective in changing behavior as is positive reinforcement. But it is very satisfying to the punisher.

        2. We do have a need for bogeymen and people to hate (and punish). Which is unfortunate.

        1. What I am taking issue with, which you didn’t answer, is the notion that punishment of violators of our social norms is inherently evil. We all know the trade-offs, and moreover, we endlessly debate what is an acceptable punishment for what crimes. But is that evil? No, not in the usual definition of the word.

        2. Sure, positive reinforcement alone is more effective than punishment, but what if punishment and positive reinforcement are both used in a coordinated way?

      2. My comment is skeptical of the point. You’ve misread the sentence. I apologize for using longer, more complex sentence structures; I know it’s a bit above the average reading level of most Reason commenters.

        1. You should be very, very careful with the words you type, the cavalier way you accuse someone of misreading you and being unintelligent. It reflects quite poorly on your emotional maturity. One might even say you’re projecting.

          That being said, read what you wrote again, because I know there is no edit function:
          “…and there might well not be any concrete way in which we should shape a penal policy around the understanding that criminal punishment is always an evil to be avoided.”

          Do you want to shape a penal policy around something other than criminal punishment? Why? Because criminal punishment is “always an evil to be avoided” you say. That is what you’re saying here, is it not? You also say that there might not be a way to do so. Why?

          Alas, the fault for a lack of reader in getting clear understanding of the message you are giving, always, always, falls back on the writer. Before you accuse someone of misreading you, I have a word of advice; write better. I’m sure that I’m not the first person to tell you this, perhaps a parent, or an English teacher, and I’m sorry that it has to come from an person you don’t know on the internet, because you’re likely to discount such perfectly sound advice that goes back to at least the Sophists.

          I’d give you a C+ for effort though. You can submit another comment, for extra credit, but I won’t be grading it until after the Thanksgiving holiday weekend is over.

          1. Jesus, you’re dense.

            Do you want to shape a penal policy around something other than criminal punishment?

            No, and not a pertinent question.

            Because criminal punishment is “always an evil to be avoided” you say.

            I have not said this. In my comment, the phrase “always an evil to be avoided” describes an “understanding” that hypothetically could form the basis of a penal policy. I concede, in my initial comment, in apparent agreement with Gail, that there may not be any concrete way to adopt such a policy anyway. I nowhere endorse this “understanding.”

            Alas, the fault for a lack of reader in getting clear understanding of the message you are giving, always, always, falls back on the writer.

            And years of debating people on the internet with piss-poor reading comprehension skills counsels otherwise, choad. You may not approve of my initially-drafted comment, but in the follow-up, you try to pin a position on me that I expressly and in the clearest of terms disavowed – albeit with a side of snark that apparently raised your hackles. I have no reason to believe you have any standing to criticize me.

  5. But I couldn’t help writing a bit about Menninger, since thinking like his is part of why the nation suffered soaring rates of crime in the late 1960s, 1970s and into the 1980s.

    This is not at all clear, including because Meninnger’s views were not at all widely accepted even when he was writing. If I had to bet, I would guess that most of that change in crime had to do with environmental lead exposure and idiosyncratic trends in narcotics use.

    1. The research on lead exposure is fascinating.

      The violent crime decline was global, regardless of prison policies. It happened at different times in different places. Always, everywhere, it happened with a 16-20 year lag after each place phased out leaded gasoline. That number tells a story, the story of the time from an infant’s brain forming to the time of his peak years of risk for being a violent criminal. And we know for a fact what lead does to brains.

  6. Here is, if you are curious, a study that picks apart how much of the crime rate changes can be attributed to incarceration rates and how much to other factors. Or there would be, except that my link was “a word that is too long” for the comment software. Search vera.org for “prison paradox”.

    The laboratories of democracy, the various states, have been running some decarceration experiments. Their crime rates are staying the same. Texas is one, I forget the others off hand.

    If people like Alice Marie Johnson were sentenced to two years instead of life without parole I would feel just as safe. That would mean less money for private prison operators who are campaign contributors.

    An over-long sentence isn’t even revenge. Prison memoirist Michael Santos wrote that after 20 years it didn’t even seem like punishment any more, just his normal life. It did stop him from organizing wholesale cocaine deals but other approaches might also have worked.

    I apologize for not having a citation, but the Economist recently cited something that suggests that any value a prison sentence has for changing someone’s life comes in the first two years.

    Oh, and by all means look up the research on phasing out leaded gasoline.

    1. Don’t get me wrong, I am glad that there is no longer lead in our gasoline, but it’s just one more data point. All that leaded gasoline stuff; correlation not causation. Leaded gasoline was used worldwide, and there was no spike in crime rates in many other industrialized countries, nor a similar drop off in crime. Same with the narrative that legalizing abortion leads to lower crime rates due to less unwanted babies being raised poorly. All interesting, and maybe true, but it is not a certainty, nor even perfectly convincing. The time period of the crime spike ALSO coincides with the destruction of the black family through welfare policies that encouraged non-marriage, as well as rising divorce rates and single motherhood for all races. However, I keep seeing the gas and abortion arguments cited as it if they are a highly convincing case, though, because if it *is* true, it has policy implications for today that bolster a liberal agenda.

      1. There was leaded gas in 1960 yet we still have not returned to that crime baseline.

        Liberals focus on lead to avoid their responsibility for damaging society.

        1. Please lay off the liberals, who are just as qualified as you to play that game, but in reverse.

          As to leaded gasoline, it was introduced in the U.S. in the 1920’s, during a long increase in homicide rates that dates at least to the early years of the 20th century, but the first major reduction in homicides in the U.S. began in the mid-1930’s and continued until near the end of the 1950’s. In criminology, lead effects form a major point of contention between groups of researchers, and my understanding is that most don’t believe there’s much of an effect. That said, I have friends who have published good, quantitative research that indicates that lead in drinking water (from lead water pipes) once played a significant role in urban homicide differences.

  7. I grew up in the tiny town of Deer Lodge, Montana, on a farm midway between the state prison ranch and the Warm Springs hospital for the insane. Walkaways from both institutions were common as the only security measures at either were twice-a-day headcounts.

    Our family never suffered anything beyond some desperate trespasses that generated amusing stories we have told for decades but some neighbors were actually kidnapped and my sister blew a hole in an expensive very large living room picture window when she was home alone at night and her boyfriend unexpectedly pranked her.

    My conclusion from that experience is that bureaucrats really can not classify people as well as they claim nor can they predict what their wards will do. They ought to be ashamed to draw their reliable paychecks and pensions, most of them.

    From my own corrections experience I would recommend that all inmates in low-security institutions wear electronic ankle bracelets 24/7 that alarm instantly when the wearer departs the boundaries of the place, or tampers with the device in any way.

  8. Fitting skewering of Menninger. Hard to conceive of a time in which the public had an inclination toward rehabilitation rather than incarceration for its own sake. Menninger reflected that spirit. Gone, long gone, and easy to ridicule.

  9. My favorite adage about criminal statistics is that if you torture them enough, they will confess to anything. Janet Reno used to like brag that her tenure as judge of a drug court in Florida had a 96% success rate for those who completed the lengthy drug rehab therapy course she mandated! Only 4% reoffended!

    For political promotion purposes, that sounded real good. What Janet did not mention is that in the urban court over which she presided there were two types of drug offenders. The vast majority were seasoned drug users who quit attending the rehab courses as soon as she released them from custody. A small minority were Yuppies of the 1990’s who had been busted for the first time and were so horrified their careers would be ruined they completed every court-ordered therapy requirement and never got caught again.
    A recidivist was only counted if he or she re-offended in the exact jurisdiction and was convicted of the same offense!
    If the offender was apprehended elsewhere and the drug part was plea bargained away, that was not counted as a Reno drug court failure, but a rehab success! The offender did not re-offend in the two-three year span post-conviction time frame Reno was bragging about.

    How many of her success stories relapsed after two to three years? We’ll never know. Ancient history. Just keep in mind that Janet Reno worked up those “success” numbers pretty cleverly to begin with.

    1. I should have said, caught elsewhere and/or the drug part was plea bargained away. Also the offender might have murdered someone on a street corner but the drug aspect would not be apparent in the charges.

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