Should we punish crime? An alternate perspective

Trigger warning: topics surrounding suicide, substance abuse, and hate crime will be discussed in this article.

Aside from the pandemic, social and political movements have been occurring around the world, which might have propelled the number of the coronavirus cases as well as the intensity of the movement itself. Oftentimes, riot police would be dispatched to control the crowds. Protestors can be caught and prosecuted, even when they were peaceful. However, do they really deserve to be punished?

Law and Morality

Law, like everything else, evolves with time. Merely generations ago, our ancestors practiced customs that we would consider unlawful today, such as slavery and patriarchy. It is easy to criticise these actions now, especially when we are looking back through our standards. However, it would’ve been difficult for them to stand up against the status quo, as it would risk everything from opportunities, family, freedom, to their lives.

In Malaysia today, suicide is punishable by fine, a year in prison, or both. Despite ongoing initiatives to decriminalize suicide, there are still individuals convicted under the law as recent as this week. For someone already struggling against resorting to suicide, this can add on to their emotional burden and worsen their symptoms. If laws uphold the definition of morality, is the act of suicide so immoral that it is deserving of such punishment? In fact, what makes the protestors, or any regulatory organization, so sure that we are on the right side of history, or that everything the law covers is the rightful and true definition of morality?

Criminal Behaviours

There are many factors that can lead one person to crime. It can be the social environment, or situations that seem like there is no way out. For instance, an abusive father that uses alcohol as a way to cope with stress, who passes their violent tendencies onto their child, or a mother stealing milk powder that she can’t afford, or a patient purchasing cannabis to cope with chronic pain.

In Western popular culture, celebrities openly share how drug consumption have affected their lives and the psychological pain that it brings. They tend to receive support from their fellow celebrities and fans for their recovery.  However, celebrities in countries such as South Korea that have consumed drugs are frowned upon, and it threatens their career. This suggests that standards in law and morality differ depending on the country and culture. Considering the psychological struggles behind substance use, would criminalizing it be likened to criminalizing suicide?

Instead of punishing substance abuse, countries such as Portugal have decriminalized it, and offer rehabilitation and medical support. After that, local communities started showing support, and people even began minimizing their slurs against drug users. As a result, their Opioid crisis stabilized. This proves that there are alternative holistic solutions to be discovered which can also improve many other aspects of society. Rather than punishing the act of the crime itself, alternatives such as investigating and treating the root of the issue should be considered. Perhaps reforming our social support system – better education, opportunities for social mobility and rehabilitation – would help improve the crime rates.

Clean syringes offered to someone after being given methadone at a clinic in Lisbon. Photograph: Horacio Villalobos/Corbis via Getty Images (x)

What about people who deliberately do crime?

However, there are also people who deliberately commit offences due to internalized values such as racism and sexism. For this, we can argue that this comes from a lack of familiarity and understanding. Condemning these individuals for their acts can be counterintuitive as it might reinforce their beliefs and anger. Instead, initiating open conversation with them can be a means of progression for this issue. With this, we can identify the motivation behind such crimes and enhance our efforts in improving in relevant fields.

Former white supremacist Christian Picciolini, who stated that frequent interactions with people of other races in his community humanized them. (x)

Are people simply trying to survive in a flawed world?

When convicted criminals are released from prison, they are often rejected from housing and job opportunities, rendering it difficult for them to work towards a better life. As a result, they tend to resort to their previous patterns of behaviour. So is this system really the best solution to societal issues if we constantly turn our backs away from them, after isolating them from society for an extended period? Who does this system serve?

Maybe the Joker’s story is closer to reality than we think. (x)

The stigma is arguably justifiable, considering the uncertainty to whether they would repeat their crime. Nevertheless, it can be a devastating form of oppression. To overcome this, should we consider releasing them with transition aids in securing job opportunities and psychological support? For one to change, we should first ensure that they have enough resources to do so.


Morality is fluid and changes with time. There are many factors that brings one to criminal behaviour , whether it’s environmental or situational. Instead of dehumanizing individuals who commit crime, we should also work towards understanding their circumstances to prevent recurrences. Also, we should put more effort into rehabilitation, reformation, and education. As a society, we can also try to educate ourselves towards better awareness as well.

Despite the length of the article, there are many areas I haven’t covered. As the author, I am aware that this article can sound overly idealistic and empathetic, especially considering that there are victims in crime. I am not saying that we should be tolerant to all types of criminal behaviours, nor am I here to excuse their actions. What’s done is done, but there must be a way to improve the circumstances we are in.

Society shapes us, and we shape society. By raising these questions, I hope that we can start to approach difficult questions with compassion and criticality. Issues like these are not isolated and can be improved. It is our responsibility as the new generation of society to question the status quo and progress towards a better society. 


If you feel any emotional discomfort, feel free to contact:

Talian Kasih by the Malaysian Women, Family and Community Development Ministry
Hotline: 15999 (24 hours)
WhatsApp: 019-261599

Wellbeing and Learning support, University of Nottingham Malaysia
Number: 03 8924 8060
019 266 0691 (24 hour hotline)

Written by Wyn Wang