Sunday, April 1, 2007

Criminal Profiling Topic of the Day: Can Violent Offenders Change?

I saw a sweet, heartwarming movie the other day about the redemption of a violent youth. The film Tsotsi (which means thug) takes place in the slums on the outskirts of Johannesburg, South Africa. The film opens with Tsotsi’s involvement with the stabbing of a businessman he and his boys are robbing on the subway. Clearly, this is a way of life for him and his gang, but the first time he has been involved in murder. When one of the gang members can’t handle the fact they have taken an innocent life, he badgers Tsotsi about his lack of feeling for humankind. Tsotsi responds by beating him senseless. Then, he takes off and ends up at the house of a wealthy black couple and carjacks the wife as she exits her vehicle. When she fights back, he shoots her and takes off. Here is the turning point of the movie; there is a baby in the backseat of the car. For some reason Tsotsi takes to the child and attempts to care for him in his rough and violent manner (he forces a woman to feed the baby at gunpoint). Eventually, he returns the baby to its parents and gives himself up.

The movie made me feel bad. I felt like a creep. I quite often caution against believing in the rehabilitation of psychopaths as a worthless and dangerous endeavor. But, who am I not to give someone a chance? Am I wrong that these damaged beings couldn’t finally break through their rage and see some worth in another human being (other than what that human being can do for them)? Could a violent offender not really feel remorse at some point in his life? If I were in Johannesburg and a judge in a court in which Tsotsi came before me, would I see that his returning of the baby was a sign that he could be a better man with a little bit of help and a decent life? Weren’t his tears at the end of the movie real and shouldn’t we as a society have a little mercy for this young man who grew up in a horrible home?

Then I remembered; this was only a movie. A real Tsotsi would have probably simply tossed the child from the car window as he drove down the road with the stolen vehicle. Or, if he thought the baby was kind of cute and he wanted to be a proud daddy, the first time the baby got on his nerves, it likely would have been suffocated. Psychopaths may sometimes like other people and they may like certain pets if they get some benefit from them, but they would also never let their “feelings” for them get in the way of their own needs.

Sometimes, later in life a criminal will renounce his violent ways but only because he can’t keep up with pace of tough younger offenders. Like all of us after middle age, the body slows to a great extent and our desire for dangerous and energetic activities wanes quite a bit. While this varies from individual to individual, there is a reason why our VFWs are full of older men telling their war stories and not still living them. Many violent offenders also become pussycats in old age, living in their memories and conning people with their talk instead of assaulting them. Give them an elixir of youth and as soon as they felt the strength and power return to their bodies, we would find them out on the streets again, back to using fists and weapons instead of verbal manipulation.

To ascertain how much leeway we should give criminal offenders in returning them to society, we need to determine what those offenders find as acceptable behavior (forgery, robbery, rape, child murder, etc), and figure out if there is a way to prevent them from returning to their crimes of choice. Depending on what drives these offenders to commit their crimes, some measure of control may work. If an individual robs for lack of being able to find work, job skills could make a difference, but, if one likes to rob for the thrill of assaulting other people, then unless you can make sure they can’t pounce on people any more or think they can’t get away with their crimes without getting caught and going back to jail, all the job training in the world isn’t going to change their behavior. This is exactly why no sexual predator should ever be returned to society unless he is a quadriplegic (and I say that because I know of a paraplegic who sexual assaulted a woman he grabbed from his wheelchair).

Tsotsi liked violence for the sake of it. Even if he did have a soft corner for the baby he stole, he didn’t have any for the adults he injured and killed. At the end of the movie, I am sure many viewers would hope Tsotsi would catch a break and not spend to much time in jail (Tsotsi II: The Return?). But, I hope folks remember this is fiction, not real life, and, if you can’t prevent a Tsotsi from developing, do us the favor and keep him away from us a long as one legally can.

Criminal Profiler Pat Brown

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