Friday, November 13, 2009

The nature of Criminals?

In one of my classes we had to choose a specific population of people to develop a workshop to deal with issues of treatment and prevention. Out of all of the populations that have drawn my interest through the years, and in light of California's impending early release of 40,000 prisoners due to inhumane conditions and overcrowding in prisons, I chose to focus on the plight of offenders who are at the end of their period of incarceration.

This is not my first foray into the world of criminal justice, it follows my jail poetry program that I constructed for my BA Honor's thesis, but it is the first time I really considered the reality and inner consequences and causes of criminal deeds. Like most people, crime has been a peripheral life issue; something I fear being the victim of and cannot understand the motivation for. Unlike many people I know, I have been closely touched by violent crime-- one of my good friends was violently murdered in 2005-- and I still suffer occasional nightmares and difficulty dealing with the senselessness and horror of what happened to her. I also know that at least 5 of the people I was friends with as a teen are in jail for murder, or have been murdered-- these peoples' misfortunes, and having discovered the loss of many others to addiction, overdose, suicide, and intoxicated accidents, have brought the world of lawlessness much closer to my door than a person of my gender and cultural background would have ever been likely to encounter at any historical period before now.

But the system of law is no longer in congruence with the societal mores and norms of today. That this is true can be clearly illustrated by the fact that we have more imprisoned people than we've ever had, more than any other nation, and that the majority of our criminals are incarcerated for crimes that barely seem valid as reasons for disrupting the lives of an individual and the families who love them. More than half of the people in our jails and prisons are doing time for drug convictions and substance-abuse related crimes. I'm not seeking to engage in the debate about legalization of drugs, or decriminalization of related problems, but rather explore the reality that the discontinuity between public opinion (and morality) and criminal law has created a somewhat unique historical melting pot, if you will.

For there used to be a fairly wide gulf between those who are and are not criminals. Most people have lived lives that were clearly and proudly apart from any hint of lawlessness, and respected the validity and morality imposed by the laws of our land. Perhaps, in prohibition, we can see the closest approximation of our current situation, but even then there was a larger societal acceptance of alcohol as an evil-- and at least women (the gatekeepers of morality) were largely submissive and accepting of the restrictions imposed by law.

Now though, with less gender stratification and a loosening of traditionally rigid standards of morality and behavior, I guess it would be hard to find any one of us who does not have a close and loving relationship with a "criminal." Few of us feel any guilt about breaking traffic laws, at least, and many of us engage in the "criminal" act of using marijuana on at least an occasional basis. For even those of us who no longer smoke pot, there is a good likelihood that we have tried it or have been accomplices or harbourers of the "criminals" who do. Likely you, as I, have a hard time conceiving of the pot smoker as a "criminal," and yet the law does.

The result of this, then, is that the line between criminal and low-abiding citizen has eroded to a point of near invisibility. This erosion causes our society to accept and celebrate the underworld and criminal society as a part of our larger culture, and creates a conflicting and confusing standard for our children. On one hand, they witness the impotence and irrelevance of laws that do not reflect our real standards of living, and on the other hand we still think of criminals as those bad people who are outside of the bounds of acceptable society. While we may not think of our family member or friend who uses any drug as a criminal, we will so classify any stranger who has been caught and jailed for the same offence.

It is this conflicting, confusing, and injust problem of thinking that leads me toward the lives of those who become trapped in a cycle of crime-- very difficult to escape-- and to consider the issues they will face when they return to a society that largely blames them for being caught, and not for the deed they committed. Before they became criminals, most of these people were "ill" and needed help to recover or overcome addiction and chaos. Their crime was not the drugs but their timing and lack of social support. If they were not poor, or a minority, they would have gotten probation, rehab, community service, or let go. But, being poor, they become stigmatized by the experience of incarceration. Their time in prison makes them irredeemable and deserving of harsh treatment and distrust.

And, even if they were guilty of a "real" crime, one that hurt someone else, we must consider and accept the fact that they are leaving incarceration; they might be moving down the street from you.

In the end these thoughts have led me to the ultimate question of this situation. 1) are humans redeemable? 2)How can a person be redeemed? and 3)how much punishment is enough to satisfy our need to teach these people a lesson?

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