Tuesday, October 30, 2012
To Hurt or to Heal
All of the talk of rehabilitation revolutions are inevitably futile as ,long as we continue to have our fetish with imprisonment. Prison takes people who are often damaged and – as a matter of deliberate policy – damages them further before releasing them back into an indifferent society. Well, indifferent until the next victim is generated.
Punishment is a lodestone, politically at least, of the justice system. That “punishment” may well make a bad situation worse is completely ignored. Which is one reason why the criminal justice system is held in contempt by all parties, defendants as well as victims. After passing through a brutal process, no one involved emerges either satisfied or feeling better for the process.
Prison damages. After a crime that has caused harm, our response is a process which adds further harm. It takes a person (mostly a man) and separates them from their families. They may lose their relationships, placing higher burdens on State benefits and increasing the chances of their children wandering from the path of a decent life. They lose their job, maybe a whole professional career and will find it extremely difficult to return to a productive meaningful life. The costs to the individuals is huge and the cost to society is ridiculously high. The whole machine is geared at causing harm and it does so with brutal efficiency.
Throwing the word “rehabilitation into this seems quite ridiculous. It is the equivalent of blinding a man and then handing him a map of the road back to good. It is a nonsense, and we will reap the costs of that for so long as any policy maker suggests that prison can be even remotely a positive experience. Which is not to say that there are no alternatives; only that we, as a society, prefer the government to deal with the social trash rather than getting our hands dirty.
We should reclaim our criminals, if for no other reason than the government is doing such a lousy job with them. We could render imprisonment a niche in the criminal justice system, an odd relic that we may wonder why we fetishized in the first place. As a 200 year old experiment, the evidence is in – prison doesn’t work and so communities should accept the challenge of dealing with its most difficult members.
Canadian communities found themselves thrown into action some years ago in response to a sex offender panic. The government has altered sentencing laws which meant that sex offenders served every day of their sentence and then released into the community. Without supervision. It served a populist cause but saw communities having to deal with high risk sex offenders all by themselves.
It was the Mennonite church which stepped into the gap in the first instance and created a scheme which protected the community from the criminal and the criminal from the community. This became “Circles of Support and Accountability”. Short of a new offence being detected, government was out of the loop. And this concept was such a success that the K imported it, albeit in a different legal framework, to some success
It is a labour intensive form of community response. If necessary, with the highest risk ex prisoners, volunteers accompany them for 24 hours a day, challenging their behaviours whilst also assisting them to reintegrate and rebuild their lives. It is a deal from which everyone benefits.
There is no reason why we cannot respond to all but an extreme handful of criminals in this way, retaining them in the community. Except we chose not to; we prefer to write government a cheque to deal with the problems on our behalf. Except we are not getting anything approaching a decent return for our money and communities feel divorced from the criminal justice system.
Criminals grow up in communities, they live in them and they then harm them. It is in communities that our best chance of reclaiming people lays. To shrug off our difficult members and hide them behind high walls is short sighted, expensive, and ultimately futile.
Communities should reclaim their errant members and challenge them, supervise them and reintegrate them. Criminals are not a separate species or islands apart and fracturing their tenuous connections to their communities – as imprisonment does – only subverts any hope of a future with fewer victims. We need to decide to heal the wounds of crime, not to inflict further hurt.