The True Litmus Test: How We Treat those Behind Bars

Forgiveness isn’t a word we often use when we talk about the criminal justice system. Yet, when we mess up – as we all do and will continue to do – it is something we seek out from those we have hurt. Perhaps we consider forgiveness to be too associated with morality to include it in the justice system. Perhaps we think it has no place there, but does it? The question I’m posing is:

What do we think about the criminal justice system? How should it work? Have we ever asked ourselves what the best system would look like?

I’m not saying we should agree that forgiveness should be included in everyone’s vocabulary when we’re talking about criminals, but what if we’re talking about people? In this contrast, we see another problem we face – labelling. We do it all the time. And while not every label is inherently malicious, what if your label is the worst thing you’ve ever done? We see this rigid, unforgiving labelling reflected in the way we convict and condemn others with permanent titles like rapist, killer, drug-addict, dealer, thief, arsonist. It begs the question: are we not more than the worst we do?

Though our hurt, anger, frustration, condemnation may cause us to think otherwise, criminals are individuals. They are people who have dignity. 54% of Americans in state and federal prison are parents to minors. We seem to forget this, and our system reflects this. Why? Even if we don’t believe in forgiving, criminals who have paid their time continue to be punished. They often face lack of employment opportunities, difficulty or inability to access some government services, and denial of restoration of voting rights until a certain amount of time. What kind of society are we building if we refuse to foster a better path during, but especially after the time has been paid? The consequences of unemployment post-conviction are especially challenging. What about their families? Are we any better by condemning a criminal’s family, especially their children, to potential struggle because of an action that likely had nothing to do with them? By forcing others to carry a burden they never should’ve carried? That may be the cost of a criminal’s action, but we have a choice and responsibility. By perpetuating that effect on others, it does nothing to improve our community and it does nothing to rebuild from the hurt in ourselves.

I am not by any means justifying the actions of those incarcerated. I am not saying the harm they have caused does not deserve punishment, does not continue to hurt those around them, and does not have an irreversible mark at times. What I am saying is that we are failing if we refuse to try to understand what it is that brought them to the point of committing a crime. We are failing if we refuse to take action in preventing them from being in that situation not only for the first time, but especially the second and third. We are not creating a flourishing society if we don’t attempt to reintegrate those most in need of being reintegrated. With well over sixty percent (and higher in some cases) of repeat offenders, what does our system say about us? We are not only unforgiving at times, but unjust. Through ignorance, apathy, or enmity, we permit this system to continue. We condemn the condemned beyond their term.

The first time I visited a jail, I was sixteen. I met a boy there, like me: we were the same age, we had gone to similar schools, grown up in the same city, and watched the same movies. There was one main difference between us: he was in for life imprisonment with no chance at parole. I was struck by this idea: I was free to walk out that day, and he was in for the rest of his life. Unfortunately, because some bad friends had left him in a bad situation, he was forever paying for the consequence of a mistake he made as minor. While this is not every criminal case, it is not uncommon. This boy was a kid, with parents and siblings. Every criminal is a son or daughter, a brother or sister, a mother or father. No matter what they’ve done, why do we forget that?

We need to start realizing how our society treats us. Not just the ‘best’ of us or those with a spotless record, which is becoming as uncommon as two thirds of the population nowadays. It’s costing us a lot money, a lot of broken families, and a lot of pain.

With people, we judge their character by how they treat those ‘inferior’ to them. Isn’t it time we ask the same of our society?

Written by Gabriela Castello, a current intern at the WYA Headquarters