Let’s Stop Talking About ‘Evil’ Criminals

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prison mentee

Participant in re-entry mentoring program at Louisiana’s Angola Prison. (Photo by Clark Giles/courtesy Equal Justice Initiative)

As awareness of the inequalities baked into our carceral system rises, we still treat those who have “done their time” as unequals.

Want to get an education? Drug convictions limit eligibility for financial aid. Want to earn money for college? Employers are unlikely to call you back, especially if you’re African American.

Want to vote for people who will ease these restrictions? In many states, you can’t. Despite recent efforts to restore voting rights, the majority of states continue to impose restrictions on formerly incarcerated individuals.

Why does this happen? Since 2016, my psychology lab at Columbia University has studied how children and adults think about morality. Part of our focus is psychological essentialism—the view that people’s behaviors and characteristics come from an internal “essence” that makes that person who they are.

These “essences” are often seen as an unchanging, an inherent part of someone’s identity. When we describe someone as having a “criminal nature,” we are using essentialist language. The use of such language communicates the belief that incarcerated people are inherently bad and can’t change—not even after leaving prison.

In more than 500 interviews, my team asked children and adults to define the words “prison” and “jail.” Six- to eight-year-olds were more likely than adults to think that these words referred to places where someone might go because of the kind of person they are. Children said things like “prison is a place where bad people go” or talked about jails housing “bad guys.” The “badness” of incarcerated people was more salient to children than anything else, like the fact that people often go to prison because they did something illegal, or that they can’t leave whenever they want.

Adults typically defined prison in terms of behaviors, saying things like “prison is a place where you go when you break the law.” But when asked why someone might break the law, adults, like children, focused on internal qualities. They thought people might break the law because “they have no sense of right or wrong,” out of “evilness,” or simply because they found it “fun” to commit crimes.

If that’s how people explain incarceration, of course they wouldn’t trust people who have left prison. It makes no sense to allow evil people to participate fully in society.

In fact, a follow-up study from my lab shows that attributing transgressions to internal qualities can reduce generosity toward people who have done something wrong. In that study, we told adults about two different people. One person, we said, was bad because something inside of him, like a chemical in his brain, made him that way. The other person was equally bad, but for a different reason: he had learned to be bad from other people.

Then, we asked participants to divide five lottery tickets between the two characters.

Even though they heard about two people who were equally “bad,” adults’ generosity differed sharply. On average, they gave fewer than half the tickets to the person whose badness was attributed to an internal “essence.” Talking about people as though they are inherently, irredeemably “bad” can reduce the extent to which others are willing to share with them.

This matters for people in prison, who are often described as unchangingly bad. In a culture that thinks its incarcerated citizens are evil, it can be difficult to give them anything, including the benefits of full citizenship. What if we instead talked about the behaviors and social forces that lead to incarceration?

What if our policies took seriously the idea that once people have served their sentence, their debt to society is paid?

Policymakers are not the only people who can create change. Anyone can call lawmakers and send postcards. When we enter the voting booth, we can cast our ballots with an eye toward expanding the electorate for next time.

We can also take actions in our day-to-day lives that may seem too small to matter but, together, add up to a more just world. When we talk about wrongdoing, we can describe behavior, not character. We can talk about “people who have committed crimes,” not “evil criminals.”

Our legal system says that after people serve their time, their debt to society is paid. True reform must take this idea seriously.

Larisa Heiphetz

Larisa Heiphetz

Incarcerated people are not irredeemably bad people. The sooner our society starts talking and acting like that’s true, the sooner we can become a place where, to borrow the phrase used by  Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, no one—not an incarcerated person, not me, not you or your best friend or your child—has to be reduced to the “worst thing [we’ve] ever done.”

 Larisa Heiphetz is a professor of psychology at Columbia University and a visiting scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation. She welcomes comments from readers

4 thoughts on “Let’s Stop Talking About ‘Evil’ Criminals

  1. Hi. Thank you for this ! I know many people who have been to jail and prison. Some for short terms and some for many years. A lot of them are my family members. Some are friends. They are not “bad” people. They just made some bad choices at one time or another. I really hate it when anybody gets out of prison and tries to make themselves a better person, but, society won’t let them and won’t help them. They have requirements for parole, such as get a job, get a place to live, become a member of society again. But, no one will hire them and no one will rent to them. I know for a fact that a lot of these people either commit suicide or do things intentionally to go back to prison, because they can’t make it on the outside. It’s sickening that anyone gets treated this way. It’s not right.

  2. Women Against Registry advocates for the families who have loved ones required to register as sexual offenders. According to the NCMEC map there are over 912,000 men, women and children (as young as 8 and 10 in some states) required to register. The NCMEC has ceased publishing the number of registered citizens as it will soon top 1,000,000. If you multiply the number on the registry by 2 or 3 family members you can clearly see there are well over 3 million wives, children, moms, aunts, girlfriends, grandmothers and other family members who experience the collateral damage of being murdered, harassed, threatened, children beaten, have signs placed in their yards, homes set on fire, vehicles damaged, asked to leave their churches and other organizations, children passed over for educational opportunities, have flyers distributed around their neighborhood, wives lose their jobs when someone learns they are married to a registrant. Professionals indicate 3 things are needed for successful reintegration; a job, a place to live and a “positive” support system. [The writer recommends reading an essay by Ira Mark and Tara Ellman, in Constitutional Commentary Fall, 2015. (Google: Frightening and High). [This post has been condensed for space reasons]

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