Continuing Punishment

In his book United, Senator Cory Booker addresses the problem of recidivism in the United States criminal justice system, and asks if society should be doing more to reduce the rates of people continuing crime after serving time and facing subsequent arrests. Many people return to prison after completing sentences for non-violent crimes and the ideas about why and the solutions put forward to reduce relapse into negative behavior are varied. Booker argues that our system is currently not set up in a way to help re-integrate prisoners and that the system creates larger burdens for minority and poor individuals.

 

Booker writes, “People have themselves to blame for their decisions; that is undeniable. But don’t we have a legal obligation to structure a system that is balanced, not savagely slanted against minorities and the poor?” He focuses on the personal responsibility for our decisions and actions, but shows that our decisions and actions do not take place inside a vacuum. Society is a contributing factor, and how we structure our system can in many ways shape how people respond and whether negative actions and behaviors seem to be worth the cost or seem to be the only option one has. Booker continues, “Don’t we have a moral responsibility to offer redemption to someone who has paid his debt instead of unyielding retribution against him and his family?”

 

We are in a challenging place where many of our jobs are becoming service and technology jobs focused on our mind and not on our physical strength. As we move in this direction, our jobs require that we handle more sensitive information and have more interactions with the people that a business depends on. In these jobs, integrity is important, and employers increasingly avoid hiring people that have been arrested. Previous convictions serves as a measuring stick for integrity. As jobs move away from physical labor, we end up with fewer opportunities for those who have past convictions.

 

Many government programs also require background checks for individuals and felony or misdemeanor charges can make someone ineligible for things like housing assistance. As a result, individuals who may struggle to find a job also end up being ineligible for government assistance and are stuck in a situation where their only option appears to be more criminal activity.

 

These individuals may have more opportunities than turning to continued criminal activity, but in a world where everything seems to be telling them that they are no longer a worthy human being, it can be understandable that  someone slips back to crime. The way we treat people who have been arrested often does not align with our beliefs that everyone deserves a second chance. The system as it is set up now does offer some supports for those who have been arrested and need help re-joining society, but our actions seem to show that we would rather isolate those who have been to jail rather than help them re-join society, change their behaviors and actions, and have a second chance. At some point we must look at where we have drawn the line between personal responsibility for negative actions and behaviors, social responsibility for crime and recidivism, and acceptable and appropriate punishment. I believe that at some level we don’t actually care about those who are arrested, and instead choose to draw a line in the moral sand because punishing those who are less moral than we are allows us to feel good about ourselves. In this view, the punishment of others is not about those who have done wrong at all, it is simply about making ourselves feel superior.

Those in Jail

Senator Cory Booker shares a story about visiting a prison in his book United, and he describes the people he met behind bars. In his passage he describes the men in a way that elevates their humanity, which is a shift from the descriptions most people have of men in prison, which reduces their humanity. Booker writes,

 

“What struck me was how similar this talk was to the ones I’d had in the law school cafeteria with my classmates. The men were sharp and sophisticated. What struck me was how normal they seemed to me; they seemed like guys I knew. By no means did I lose sight of the fact that some of them had committed horrible crimes, but it was also clear that these human beings were much more than the crimes they had committed. To paraphrase Bryan Stevenson, they were much more than the worst things they had done.”

 

It is easy to look at people who have made mistakes and those who had done wrong and to judge them by their shortcomings alone. We seem to do a great job of seeing the flaws in others and criticizing other people’s actions, especially if they are hypocritical, in an effort to elevate ourselves and feel better about the things we have done. Recognizing that other people, especially those who have made large mistakes, are still human and share many aspects of humanity with us requires that we step back, look at ourselves and our own mistakes, and try to understand where individuals made mistakes and how they can move forward from them. It is hard to see people as more than the bad things they have done, and those mistakes can hang over them forever, constantly preventing them from moving on with their lives.

 

Stepping back and looking at others in a way that highlights their humanity over their mistakes is a practice that Marcus Aurelius described. When looking at himself relative to other people he writes, “consider that thou also doest many things wrong, and that though art a man like others; and even if thou dost abstain from certain faults, still thou hast the disposition to commit them, either through cowardice, or concern about reputation or some such mean motive, thou dost abstain from such faults.” This awareness can help us understand that the individuals in prison still matter and that the gap that separates us from them is smaller than we would like to think.

 

Not seeing the humanity in those we arrest leads those individuals to become ostracized from the community, making it harder for them to reconnect with society after they have served their sentence. By treating them as sub-human, rather than recognizing that we have many of the same urges to commit crimes, and by focusing on their worst actions we limit their possibilities. We deny government aid and federal housing assistance to those with criminal backgrounds and employers avoid hiring those who were arrested. Focusing so much fear and avoidance on these individuals makes it difficult for them to feel like citizens, and drives the punishment of their crime well beyond their time in prison. There should be punishment for serious mistakes, but when that punishment extends into perpetuity, we risk pushing people toward more crime in a negative feedback loop that seems to run against the stated purposes of our criminal justice system.