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Crime and Punishment

KotishkaKotishka Veteran
edited July 2023 in Buddhism Today

What is the Buddhist stance regarding punishment of particularly serious offenses? I'm talking about rapists, murderers, mass killers, etc.

I understand each case should be analysed carefully but, while the death penalty is definitively **out **of the charts, what about life in prison with the possibility of parole and strict revision? Is that anti-Buddha?

I wonder what you, scripture or your sanghas have said/believe regarding this topic.

I've recently spoken to a friend about the problem we face in Spain of women being murdered / raped by their husbands, boyfriends, or other people; and I said that they should face long sentences and he perceived this as anti-Buddhist.

While I feel certain aversion towards them, as my position (Psychologist), I might be working in prisons and even rehabilition, following the route of Kobutsu Malone.

To what extent is locking someone for decades / their entire life acceptable and ethical according to Buddhism?

What about 30 years? 15? How do we measure that? It is true that all sentient beings need to be saved, but these have being not very good to the others to the point of creating a distress that perhaps the most beneficial solution is to keep them away for some time.

Thank you.



  • JasonJason God Emperor Arrakis Moderator

    The Buddha generally seemed to leave questions like this to civil authorities, and would likely be viewed as a consequence of their unskillful actions. There definitely does seem to be an acknowledgement of a person's capacity to change, though, and the Buddha accepted people who were murderers into the Sangha (e.g., Angulimala). So I think there's also room for things like restorative justice. But in general, long jail times for seriously violent crimes doesn't seem particularly anti-Buddhist in and of itself.

  • Interesting how, while the Buddha accepts Angulimala and even the King too his transformation from a killer to a bhikkhu, Angulimala is still subject to the kamma of his criminal actions that inevitably lead to his gruesome death.

    The Buddha says to him: "Bear with it, brahman! Bear with it! The fruit of the kamma that would have burned you in hell for many years, many hundreds of years, many thousands of years, you are now experiencing in the here-&-now!". Angulimala does not retaliate nor curse, he accepts it and thus released from samsara.

    When I talk about providing sessions to prisoners, one important aspect is their acceptance of the deed they committed and the cost society has imposed on them: you murdered, you indeed did a wrong thing. But this should not become a source of eternal anguish or torment, you should ask for forgiveness and acceptance of your misdoing but also accept that the people you hurt might not forgive you and this is the result of your actions. What you do from now on is essential not only for your own well-being, but perhaps even for the well-being of others too.

    Thanks for the sutta @Jason :)

  • JasonJason God Emperor Arrakis Moderator
    edited July 2023

    No problem, and I like and agree with what you said. It's very Buddhist to acknowledge wrong doing, strive to not do it again, and make amends if possible. And part of that may be jail, although I think the US prison system is inadequate and creates more problems that it solves, being more punitive than anything else. But certainly their future skillful actions will benefit themselves and others in many ways, even if their benefit isn't overtly apparent.

  • To what extent is locking someone for decades / their entire life acceptable and ethical according to Buddhism?

    My personal approach when faced with challenging situations...Do no harm and if this is not an option, then do the least harm as possible ....

    A few years ago I was called to do jury duty, it was an historic murder and rape case where new evidence had come to light...( the accused was already serving a long prison sentence for other rape charges)

    At the final deliberation , after reviewing all the evidence (some quite graphic) we all agreed that the person was guilty... I said something along the lines of "Be thankful, he will now be spending a long time behind bars"...then added "But I wonder how our votes would have gone if we still had the death penalty as an option"...

    “An eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind.”

    Hurt people hurt people....who in turn hurt people who hurt people and so the cycle continues....

  • JasonJason God Emperor Arrakis Moderator

    I agree, and I wish our prison system was more humane because I think it often hardens people even more. I think there are better ways to try and keep people out of society while trying to reform them than what the US current offers. It's generally quite inhumane, punitive, and full of debasement and violence.

  • personperson Don't believe everything you think The liminal space Veteran

    I think a part of the view in Buddha's time has to do with the social system they were living in as well. It relied much more on the wisdom (or lack thereof) of those carrying out the sentence, was the guilty willing and capable of rehabilitation or would they only continue to commit harm? Versus the rules based systems (rule of law) that most of the world operates on today. While doing much to rectify and avoid the whims and abuses of the powerful at the time, it also has its downfalls, in that we're less able to rehabilitate and use good judgement to help those who are helpable.

  • lobsterlobster Veteran

    Dear friends of criminal toddlers,

    I still regret the normal development of independence as a toddler. I stomped on a butterfly. I have been in trauma ever since. For this reason it is time for me to crowd fund my new toddler harness with in built 'tasering/shock!’ function and app controlled severity. 🤪

    Those with more time for better positive reinforcement parenting, may prefer the wireless locked head helmet which produces a serotonin boost for positive behaviour. o:)

    Here for help :mrgreen:

  • JeroenJeroen Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter Netherlands Veteran

    Come to think of it, I wonder whether it might not be better to arrange jails with more of a view to rehabilitation. Here in Holland we have a kind of sentence called “TBS” which means being kept at the government’s pleasure in a psychiatric facility. So you’ll often see ‘he got 20 years plus TBS’ in the news which means first 20 years in jail, and then an indeterminate stay in a secure psychiatric home until the person is judged to be better.

    It’s an acknowledgement that prison often doesn’t bring people to introspection and a consideration of their crimes, that often another environment is necessary where they are constantly evaluated by skilled staff.

  • The US prison system is awful. It is a breeder of injustice, gangs and cruel punishments. In Spain it seems we have a better system. Larry Lawton, ex-convict (11years in Federal institutions) agreed with this as well as mentioning how certain European countries are just so advanced in this aspect.

    The problem of rapes for example...and gang violence/activity...,3679,0,0,1,0

    Here in an interview with Kobutsu Malone, revealing how this has not changed, perhaps it has even worsened:

    " I actually got arrested in Washington, D.C., in 1968. I was at a friend’s house and was falsely charged with presence in an illegal establishment and possession of implements of a crime. I was sent to the D.C. jail. I stayed in there fourteen days, and on the second or third day I was in there I was beaten and raped. I managed to stick my foot in an electric gate and got transferred out to a hospital."

    Such environments are cruel. I believe prison should be an isolated place for the benefit of society and the convicts, like an island where you can grow and heal, both you and society. But creating these pits of horror and torments, it seems like you are creating Hell on Earth for no reason. In the end, you just end up with more crime and damaged human beings.

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