There are evil bastards in the world, hence the need for Law and Order. Law is a prescribed set of behaviors one may and may not engage in; Order is the hoped-for result of deterrents (that is, punishment) prescribed for wilfull refusal to follow those laws. But of course it's never worked that way. There has always been, and there will always be, laws that are unjust, immoral, unethical, and evil. Some examples from the past were laws protecting the "rights" of individuals to engage in slavery and "own" slaves; laws that made it illegal for women to vote; laws that made a black man's vote count less than a white man's; laws that mandated no work be performed on Sunday; laws that prevented girls and women from safe medical care.
But does the threat of punishment prevent crimes?
It depends on the crime. It can be convincingly argued that for violent crime (murder, rape, assault, battery), and crimes against property (burglary, vandalism, robbery, theft), the threat of punishment does not deter such acts. One need only look at crime statistics and the state laws in force when and where those crimes were commited.
Reciently in California (USA) a hand-gun law was passed that, proponents claim, made California's "tolerance for violent crime with hand-guns" end (so the TV commercial stated: I've never known there to have been such a "tolerance"). Any crime commited where a gun is involved gets 10 years of prison added to a conviction, no matter the crime; if the gun is fired, 20 years is added to the conviction; if the bullet hits a human being, the criminal gets life in prison. Personally, I like this law: any human being who could point a gun at another and pull the trigger is a human being that I don't want to have to live with--- prison for life is too good for him (and it's usually a "him").
But will it prevent people from shooting other people? Well, sure: after someone's been shot, not before.
What about non-violent crimes; what about crimes other than against property? Prostitution; moving violations in automobiles; parking violations; prohibition against "ilicit drugs," and other so-called "victimless crimes?"
I submit that the threat of punishment does not deter these "crimes" either. Punishment does not address the reason these "crimes" occur. (Nor do most people question why laws against such "crimes" exist in the first place.) Pick any city in the world where such "crimes" are commited, and try to match conviction rates against severity of punishment and show a corrolation (ignore showing causation). It cannot be done.
So what does prevent crime? Obviously, the desire in human beings to not commit crimes, for the sake of doing what is right and not doing what is wrong; for the sake of not commiting crimes for its own sake, and not out of fear of being punished should they commit crimes and get caught. Crime prevention can only be achieved through empathy with the possible victim(s), not through the threat of punishment.
Human beings are born criminals. We are not born decient, kind, caring, altruistic, empathic human beings: these traits are aquired, not congenital. We are born selfish, greedy, demanding, and arrogant. Socialization makes us the opposite. Unfortunately, it generally takes 20 years or more for most males in society to be socialized; many never are. By the time an individual finally "gets it," and understands why one should act deciently (the real reason, not the "reason" that he / she will be punished), half a life-time of illegal, unethical, and violent acts may have been commited. Regret often ensues.
That is not to say these individuals do not know what is right and what is wrong: even small children can be taught these things. What requires time is aquiring the internalization of knowledge of "right" from "wrong." "Wrong" is wrong because it is wrong, not because someone some where says it is. The same is true for "right." If armed robbery were to some day no longer be against the law of the land, that would not make armed robbery right. If slavery some day became the law of the land, owning slaves would still be wrong.
The point of this missive is twofold. First, the law does not mandate what is right and what is wrong: Empathy and compassion do. Second, the threat of punishment does not compel one to do right and not do wrong: Empathy and compassion do.
If this premiss is correct, one must then conclude that for a relatively crime-free society, empathy and compassion must be wide-spread. In a crime-ridden society, they must be scarce. By observation, the USA society falls into the former catagory: most citizens do not commit crime / wrongs to such an extent that they are, collectively and individually, harming society.
It is a relatively few individuals who commit crime and do wrong. But their numbers seem to be growing, right? Well, perhaps. Perhaps not. (The fear that their numbers are growing certainly exists: the truth in that fear may or may not exist.) How does society make these people understand and internalize empathy and compassion for their victims and would-be victims? I have no idea. Religion has never doen so (indeed, it usually achieves the opposite). Punishment has never done so. Rewarding them for not doing wrong or commiting crimes is not just morally and ethically repugnant, but holds society hostage to the threat that, when reward is withheld, they will commit wrong / crimes.
The only solution I can think of is to punish the criminals as we have always done: put them in prison, where they can only harm and victimize those who themselves harm and victimize. These criminals will never internalize right and wrong. "Rehabilitation" does not apply, because there was no healthy socialization to restore: they never "got it," and perhaps they never will.