Crime and Punishment

On the one hand we know that crime is an intractable part of our reality – it isn’t going away. So we watch it on police drama shows TV and movies and crime thriller novels. We learn to appreciate the cleverness of a double-cross. We see the humor in some of it, as ways to cope with this world where crime happens.

On the other hand, we also take steps to keep crime, criminals, and punishment as far out of sight and out of mind as we can. We hide prisons and prisoners away and prefer not to think about what’s going on in our prisons, and how many people we have in them.

At the same time, in the quiet of our hearts, there is a longing for a healing.
“Look at our brokenness. We know that in all creation, only the human family has strayed from the Sacred Way. We know that we are the ones who are divided. And we are the ones who must come back together to walk the sacred way. Sacred One, teach us love, compassion, and honor. That we may heal the earth and heal each other.” (from the Ojibway Indians of North American)
We stray from the sacred way of walking together in harmony.

It may be that other species also yearn – however inarticulately -- for a way to heal their divisions. One thing humans do, though, is develop institutional ways of handling those we deem trouble-makers. We probably aren’t the only species that punishes, but we do have the most elaborate institutions for doing it.

In the history of human punishment, we’ve tried all manner of ways to inflict pain or death or deprive of resources through fines and property penalties. Or we punish by separation: either banishment to push the offender out or imprisonment to hold the offender in. None of these has ever been very good at repairing the relationship damaged by the crime.

Indeed, in the history of crime and punishment, the human need to “come back together to walk the sacred way” – for restitution after injury – has slowly been pushed further into the background. Ancient law codes often provided measures for restitution for violent crimes, property crimes, or both. These included Code of Ur-Nammu in Sumer more than four thousand years ago; Babylon’s Code of Hammurabi, Israel’s Pentateuch, and the legal systems in ancient Rome, Old Ireland, fifth- and sixth-century Germany and England. The indigenous peoples of North America and Australia had systems that included restitution – restorative justice. Around the 11th- and 12th-centuries European law began to shift toward regarding offenses against the “king’s peace.” Crime’s primary legal status shifted to being an offense against the state rather than as an injury to a person. Thus retribution became the central principle rather than restitution. The formalization and development of legal systems moved us away from our natural intuitions about what justice is – away from the healing and restoration our hearts and spirits yearn for when a wrong has been felt.

The U.S., in particular, driven by a desire for justice and having no structures for restoration, we have gotten more and more extreme in imposing retribution. One in every 34 US residents are currently being penalized by our judicial system. One in every 200 are locked up. That’s 2.1 million people in prison in the US. That’s fully one-fourth of all the prisoners in the world. The US has four percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. This means that 1.7 million children in the US have a parent who is locked up. What are we doing?

As a deterrent, this is essentially nonfunctional. We know that it’s the certainty of being caught, not the severity of the punishment, that deters crime. If you don’t think you’ll be caught, it doesn’t matter how sever the punishment is. Nor do our prison systems rehabilitate, or deter future crime from those who are caught – as the recidivism rate shows. What are we doing?

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This is part 1 of 5 of "Restorative Justice"
Next: Part 2: "Incarceration Nation"

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