Nearly every aspect of the criminal justice system of the United States is designed to perpetually punish, demoralize and dehumanize, abolish autonomy and to crush successful reintegration into society.
Rehabilitation is not taken seriously. There is rarely any benefit to society and almost never any benefit to the individual caught up in it.
This is borne of a warped understanding that people have of justice. Justice is considered synonymous with punishment. And punishment makes us feel good because some people are good and some are bad and there’s nothing in-between.
Our justice system comes from a retributive orientation, not a restorative one. We care about pushing away people who remind us of our own demons. We care about eliminating those who have done harm. We don’t think much about repairing relationships, healing victims and offenders, addressing harmful conditions or healing the world.
It’s a comic book view of the world, with heroes and villains. All we have to do is kill the bad guys. And it’s expected to be a never-ending war. The idea that some people are bad and therefore less than human is crucial to the criminal justice system. It’s why a major liberal candidate for President can advocate the removal of voting rights for inmates. It is also at the center of every racist ideology and is a necessary propaganda component of every war we have ever fought. It enables slavery. And it enables locking up people who have broken the law.
As far as I can tell, our entire species is trapped in this morally primitive thinking. The psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg may have deemed this to be Stage Four of Conventional Moral Development. But to put it in black and white terms, we see everything in black and white, right and wrong. I used to think that this was peculiar to college-age people, which can lead to great social movements and upheaval. These movements can be progressive or regressive, depending on their worldview. That is, depending on whom they put in the camp of “good” and whom they deem to be “bad.”
Black and White Thinking, which psychologists also term “Splitting,” is a symptom of a world-wide, mass borderline personality disorder that humans have suffered from forever. I could end this post with a joke about everyone either agreeing with me or being one of “them,” but it’s just too depressing a situation. Even noble causes, like saving the planet or liberating the oppressed, get caught up in the delusion that the issue is about which people are good and which people are our enemies. This is lazy thinking. Everyone who thinks differently from me in any way is one of “them.” It doesn’t solve problems; problems are bigger than individual people. You can kill a terrorist, but you can’t kill terrorism. You have to do the hard work to address the conflicts that lead to terrorism. And if it makes you feel good to kill someone, or lock them up, or control their life through probation, fine. But all of the energy that we direct at people is energy not directed at solving the problems that people are perpetuating.
In case I have caused confusion, I do believe in temporarily separating someone from society when it’s necessary to protect people. But I don’t believe in punishment, and I don’t believe that giving in to hatred and simplistic black and white thinking will lead to a healed or a safe world.
Here’s some more writing, from the past: