The use of punishment is so entrenched in our judicial system that most of us never question it. When you commit a crime and are caught, you will be punished for it. Just as when a child commits an offense and is caught, he is punished for it – often without understanding what he has done “wrong.” But understanding is not the goal of punishment. Its intent is to instill the fear of punishment, in hopes that fear will prevent further misdeeds, thus (theoretically) making the perpetrator a better person and making the family or society safer.
It might be a reasonable system, both in families and in societies, if it worked. But countless studies of both children and criminals indicate that it does not work. The punishment of children ultimately does not make them better people. It makes them fearful and angry people. And criminals who are punished are more likely to re-offend, not less.
James O’Dea has witnessed the results of the system of punishment in many places in the world. As former director of Amnesty International, he has spent a lot of time in war zones and torture prisons. In a recent speech (read the full transcript here), Mr. O’Dea said:
To me, having seen so much of human suffering and war and torture in my own life I know that this [punishment system] is one of the most profound mimetic structures human beings need to overcome. If we look at the dysfunctional nature of the punishment system in the United States, and we say to ourselves, “The United States, which has evolved in many ways, its democracy, is less than 5% of the world’s population but it contains one-third of world’s prisoners.” We can hold up a mirror to ourselves and say, “Why is this so?” Why would one third of the entire global prison population be housed in one of the world’s leading democracies? It relates to this concept of punishment, that somehow punishing others will relieve us and correct our situation.
Mr. O’Dea asks, How do we move into a consciousness … that attends to what is important, that moves away from stereotyping and “otherizing” but that finally moves away from the need to punish others?
Not all justice systems (nor all families) are based in punishment. Some Native American tribal traditions, as well as those of other groups, are based on the idea that if one person in a family or a community errs, it is the responsibility of the entire family or community for failing that person in some way. Restorative justice seeks to redress wrongs through reconciliation, restoration, healing and rehabilitation. Read more about Restorative Justice here.
Maybe the time has come for us to begin to question the practice of punishment – whether incarceration or registration - as a judicial tool, and to look for other answers for creating a better world.
E. L. Taylor
I've wondered what might have happened if I had been able to sit down with a restorative mediator and the two women I offended. We would have had an opportunity to speak to one another directly and courageously, look at what happened as well as what didn’t happen, take responsibility, vent feelings, offer explanations, and show remorse to those who need to see it most. These are elements of healthy resolution - and even the possibility of forgiveness - that the judicial system denies in its punishment-based approach.
Seventeen years after my first offense, encouraged by my recovery program, I tried to make amends to the “victim” through a third party. Her refusal, as it was relayed to me, indicated that her anger is as fresh today as it was the night I tried – inappropriately and drunkenly – to seduce her.
I don’t believe the judicial system’s prescription – vengeance and ongoing punishment – has served either one of us well. There has been no resolution: She is still angry and traumatized, and I am still being punished…for the rest of my life.
An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind. Mahatma Gandhi