Rehabilitate or Punish how should Society Treat Criminals

We hear stories every other day about horrific crimes being committed in the blazing heat. Stealing at night, abducting children from lonely areashave become dated. The “in” thing to do is the wrong thing with a crowd watching. Does this mean people aren’t scared of the law anymore? I for one would freak out at the prospect of walking out of a caf without paying the bill, even if I had the chance. I’m sure there are other law-abiding people in here with me. Then, who are these people we hear about? It’s not you or me, but somebody is busy becoming a statistic.

Speaking of statistics, even though the number of inmates in American prisons has practically doubled over the past decade, “the latest FBI statistics show that reports of violence increased 5 percent last year”. Why is crime on the rise when so many offenders are locked up? Let’s have a look at our justice system.

In our society’s criminal justice system, justice equals punishment. An eye for an eye. You do the crime, you do the time. You do the time, you’ve paid your debt to society and justice has been done. But justice for whom? Certainly not the victim.

Because our society defines justice in this manner, the victims of crimes often seek the most severe possible punishment for their offenders. Society tells them this will bring justice, but punishment does not address the other important needs of victims. It cannot restore their losses, answer their questions, relieve their fears, and help them make sense of their tragedy or heal their wounds.

Meanwhile, three common outcomes exist for the offenders:

1. Incapacitation. We “put the offender out of action”. But, we consume precious correctional system resources that should be reserved for those offenders whom we must incapacitate for our protection.

2. Serve prison time. However, if punishment deters crime, then the answer to our out-of-control crime problem must be that we need to lock up more people still. How far should we go with this approach? Prisons have become one of our fastest growing industries and some states now have a punishment budget that is larger than their education budget.

3. Rehabilitation. The vast majority of prisoners pass through the “revolving doors” repeatedly. We “warehouse” offenders in institutions where the culture within rewards violence, meanness, deceit, manipulation and denial.

Most offenders return to the community as individuals who are then even more antisocial than before they were incarcerated. This is because our criminal justice system is a system of retributive or punishment-seeking justice.

Coming back to the victimsunderstandably feeling deprived of justice in so many ways, crime victims and their advocates have often sparked and championed the recent flood of “get tough” legislation and initiatives for longer prison terms and increased mandatory minimum sentences, often citing that studies by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics have shown that between 60 to 70 percent of inmates revert to crime after release.

At the same time, many other victims, victim advocates and criminal justice experts are re-thinking the value of more punishment. Social research is suggesting that for many crimes, sentences of from one to two years are the most likely to be effective, while longer sentences may be counter-productive to rehabilitating offenders. This method of dealing with thieves is both unjust and socially undesirable … as a deterrent it’s quite ineffective … no penalty on earth will stop people from stealing, if it’s their only way of getting food … it would be far more to the point to provide offenders with some means of livelihood, so that nobody’s under the frightful necessity of becoming first a thief and then a corpse.

Our offender-focused system of retributive justice is designed to answer questions like “what laws were broken, who broke them and how should the law-breaker be punished?” By focusing on punishment, our criminal justice system treats offenders as “throwaway people”.

Instead, restorative justice asks, “who has been harmed, what losses did they suffer, and how can we make them whole again?” This method sees crime as a violation of human relationships rather than the breaking of laws. Crimes are committed against victims and communities, rather than against a government. Restorative justice recognizes that, to heal the effects of crime, we must attend to the needs of the individual victims and communities that have been harmed. It recognizes that we must give offenders the opportunities to right their wrongs and to redeem themselves, in their own eyes and in the eyes of the community. If we do not provide those opportunities, the offenders, their next victims and the community will all pay the price.

Further, the termination of any form of rehabilitation represents the abandonment of the initial objective. Prisons were first constructed to house the “criminally insane” and to habilitate/rehabilitate their behaviors into those acceptable by society.

Crime is routinely associated with violence, an explosive action bursting with intense chaos, brutality, and ferocity. In life outside of prison, where one has the freedom to choose and act as one pleases, violence is often impulsive and psychologically driven. But, what happens to criminals inside the prison? Does this picture remind you of anything? Sure, they deserve to be punished. But, then what? In a controlled penal atmosphere, however, violent behavior stems from insurrection, tight quarters, overcrowding, and the lack of personal insight and recognition.

A positive method by which to control such despicable actions is through the offer of programs using the prisoner’s mental capabilities. There are those who believe that crime resides in the mind of the criminal, and therefore, the offender should be enrolled in a range of programs that approach his moral, academic, and occupational needs.

According to J. Michael Quinian, a former director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, “It is the most important ingredient in managing a safe and secure institution to keep the inmates … in either work or education or drug treatment or recreation … idleness tends to breed more violence among inmates and create greater tension between them and their guards”.
Until an inmate becomes aware of how to use his time constructively, he is treated as another number passing through the system. The administration of the prison assumes all inmates are cast from the same mold, which hinders any opportunity for the inmate genuinely interested in bettering himself. This attitude has a negative impact on inmates sincerely looking for change, creating frustration and helplessness. Training that enables the staff to stay focused on the rehabilitative objective, would help alleviate the problem.

One such undertaking is Vipassana. This is a meditation technique that focuses on introspection and behavioral changes. It was carried out on 1000 of the 9000 Tihar jail inmates in India in 1994 under the supervision of I.G. Kiran Bedi. Tihar Jail is the largest prison in India that accounts for high-risk criminals. The ultimate objective of the program there was towards a more humane approach towards prisoners, in turn achieving less hostility from them. 23% of the inmates felt an enhanced sense of well being, and less motivation to “act out” against people. And I’m talking about “hardcore” criminals. This program is running successfully today.

Apart from focusing on the offenders, another successful program is Victim-Offender Reconciliation Programs (VORP), which brings offenders face-to-face with the victims of their crimes, with the assistance of a trained mediator. Crime is personalized as offenders learn the human consequences of their actions, and victims have the opportunity to speak their minds and their feelings to the one who most ought to hear them, contributing to the healing process of the victim. Victims get answers to the often haunting questions that only the offender can answer. The most commonly asked questions are, “Why did you do this to me?”. With their questions answered, victims commonly report a new feeling of peace of mind, even when the answers to their questions were even worse than they had feared or imagined. It seems to be better than not knowing the answers. Offenders take meaningful responsibility for their actions by mediating a restitution agreement with the victim, to restore the victims’ losses, in whatever ways that may be possible. Restitution may be monetary or symbolic; it may consist of work for the victim, community service or anything else that creates a sense of justice between the victim and the offender.

Victim-Offender Mediation Programs have been mediating meaningful justice between crime victims and offenders for over twenty years; there are now over 300 such programs in the U.S. and Canada and about 500 in England, Germany, Eastern Europe, and Australia. And the interesting fact here is that the agreement reached through this has a success rate of 90% as compared to just 20% through the courts.

Okay, maybe some of you think that these meditation and mediation programs are “soft on crime” and therefore, not in the best interests of victims. But, those victim advocates who have observed or participated in mediation sessions know that mediation is not soft on crime. The offenders don’t get to simply face the judge, and pay for their act passively; they face the victim.

Some people may argue that rehabilitation does not work. That once a criminal always a criminal’. But, there are countless examples of genuinely reformed inmates. At Joliet Correctional Center, a maximum penitentiary, two months after his release, an ex-prisoner corresponded with his warden on letterhead bearing his new employer’s logo.

I am not saying that criminals must be let off. Yes, they must serve time. Yes, they must be repentant. But, through a little reform to justice we can focus the attention of offenders upon the victims of their crimes and upon their communities, instead of upon the law and the legal system. A restorative justice approach concerned with righting the wrongs to victims and making amends, repairing the harm done and restoring the lives affected by crime, offers us a much more hopeful vision for the future.