Can Criminals Change Their Ways? | Introduction to "The Thief"

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Last semester at Law School I studied Criminal Law. Crime is ugly. It hurts the victims and negatively affects the criminal’s life forever. Families can be shattered and communities can be destroyed by crime.

The system we have today only looks at the criminal. The goal of our criminal justice system is to incapacitate criminals and punish them for their acts. Little systematic rehabilitation is offered to criminals and consequently there is a high rate of recidivism in our prisons. We hope that punishing criminals will deter them and future criminals from pursuing a life of crime. Unfortunately, crime persists and criminals continue to crop up.

There is also research that shows that a criminal is hard wired psychologically with tendencies to commit crime as early as the age of five. It is very tough battle for the criminal justice system to fight when going head to head with ingrained psychological pathologies. It seems there is little hope for a system wide effort to change criminals into contributing members of society.

It is clear that our current system accomplishes one important goal. It maintains order. If not for the justice system chaos would rule the day as people with no care for right or wrong would be able to wreak havoc unfettered. The criminal justice system helps maintain order and some semblance of safety. It may not be a perfect system but in this regard it is the best we have.

While studying Criminal Law at Law School I also studied the Loyola Law School course on Jewish Law with Rabbi Adlerstein. The focus of the course was dual. On one hand we studied much of the substantive law on subjects such as helping  distressed motorist, finding lost objects, justifiable homicide and abortion, criminal procedure and many other interesting topics in Jewish Law. On the other hand we learned about a system of rules designed to prevent crime and to create a more perfect society. When Jewish Law was THE law it effectively deterred criminals and focused on the criminal making the victims whole again as opposed to retribution of the criminal. This contrasts sharply with the criminal justice system in western society.

This semester I am hoping to be taking the Restorative Justice Seminar at Loyola with Professor Wood. (I say hoping because it depends on some administrative decisions that are out of my control.) The Restorative Justice concept is similar in some ways to the Jewish Law concept. It focuses on the totality of the crime, not just the criminal and it hopes to help rehabilitate criminals at least in some capacity. I am looking forward to learning more about Restorative Justice (hopefully).

All this discussion about crime and if there is a system that can deter crime is very important. We all want a more productive society. Less crime means less resources spent on deterring and punishing crime. More importantly it give more people the opportunity to be productive members of society. Perhaps most importantly, there are no hurt victims.  Yet, much of it is theory as the system in place now is not changing dramatically any time soon.

However, I recently came across a self professed thief who changed his ways. This fellow stole thousands of dollars worth of various items for most of his life. This all began when he was about 5 years old. This is line with the research mentioned above. This fellow never got caught. He was never subject to the criminal justice system and yet, somehow, he turned it all around.

Can we learn from his story? Is there a system that can help criminals adjust their behavior? Does it require punishment?

Click to read the next two posts that tell the true story of “The Thief” in his own words.

  • guestthethief

    Very interesting framework to put my story in. Some reason I never thought about these issues in this way based on my own life experiences.

    Perhaps I just assumed that people who went to jail were the more violent type and so had different issues to be worked with. Broken homes, no role models etc. But now that you have written this, I think you make some really good points.

  • Offwinger

    Interesting topic – I’m curious to hear what the thief has to say.

    First off I think you’re being extremely naive about Jewish law and “The” Jewish system as an efficient deterrent of crime or restoration of victims. While those may be the *goals* of the halachic approach, we have pretty much zero data demonstrating its effectiveness at obtaining these goals. If you have evidence, I’d love to hear about it. I enjoy comparative debates -e.g., Jewish law versus American law (or current Israeli law, etc.). – but you have to play fair comparing apples & apples. It’s not even about adapting to modern circumstances (tripping over a barrel in the marketplace IS the same as tripping over a briefcase on the subway), but rather having a legitimate historical record. Because no Jewish system has been functioning in application for many years, it often gets presented with rose-colored glasses about what the halacha was meant to do, without regard for whether it was successful in achieving its goals.

    Beyond that, please be careful using terms like “criminal” without defining what you mean by that. Yes, there are pathologies (e.g., sociopathy or psychopathy) that often lead one to commiting crimes. But if you’re speaking of pathology, then use those terms. The word criminal doesn’t mean much other than that someone has violated a criminal law and using the term criminal implies a moral equivalency that I don’t think you mean.

    Beyond that, I know the class is called “Criminal Law,” but as you’ve already discovered (I hope), very little of what you learn in criminal law is about the practical realities of the criminal justice system in the USA or even the legal process (e.g., plea bargaining is admittedly the core method by which prosecutors get convictions and ‘criminal’s are incarcerated, but it’s a footnote to the materials on mens rea, degrees of homicide, insanity pleas, death penalty, etc.). Please take all those theories and doctrines that you’ve learned with 10 grains of salt when talking about what the US system is actually LIKE in practice.

    Other questions to think about as you try to present one idea of a “criminal” mind: How many individuals currently incarcerated in the United States actually meet the classifications of any such pathology? How many are mentally ill? How many simply come from situations in which crime is a cultural norm or seemingly the only economically feasible route? Have you looked at the American prison system as compared to other Western societies? Our incarceration numbers are tremendous, and a big reason for that is how we treat drug-related crimes. You can point to studies discussing the potential for a criminal pathology in early childhood, but that doesn’t tell us very much about the population of prisoners in our country.

    I do want to hear what your guest poster has to say. Anecdote is great. But right now, you’re giving the over-eagerness of someone who has seen the thoughts of Jeremy Bentham quoted in snippets in a casebook, without much regard for thousands of pages written on the subject of the US system, deterrence, and the current state of our prisons. I do hope that your point is not, “If only they adopted something more like our halachic approach, we’d be better off…” without a modicrum of data to back it up.

  • guestthethief

    This topic interests me greatly right now because of what California is currently going through. (More money spent on Prisons than on College Education)

    With that topic in mind, I understood criminal to be anybody who purposefully breaks laws. Not including the “criminally insane” or those with mental illness.

    I also heard it argued that the reason the prisons are so over-populated is because of overly strict rules of parole violations. Ironically, the examples I’ve heard of being overly strict, and just “minor technicalities” don’t -sound- all that minor to my laymen’s ears. (having illegal drugs, a DUI, breaking curfew) Though I can understand that those aren’t offenses that would normally put a person in jail, I think if we heard that an ex-con was caught for a DUI and released, and then they committed a “real crime”, we would all be upset that he was not taken in for the DUI.

  • Offwinger:

    Great points as always.

    In any blog post there is going to be a dumbing down of concepts and data in order to generate discussion and debate. Bearing this in mind, to your main points.

    There is no comparison of systems in place. There is a comparison of theories. The current theory in our justice system DOES NOT take the social elements of crime into account as the criminal goes through the system. Punishment is meted out but there is no systematic concern for the victims or the community. Jewish DOES have a system where the victim and community are accounted for.

    Additonaly, the Jewish law system is part of ethical or moral value system which carries different weight and importance than a system built around maintaining order.

    When I say criminal I mean a person who has been convicted of breaking a law.

    Our professor of Criminal was mindful of the gap between theory and reality. She took us to the Twin Towers Jail in Los Angeles so we could learn about the realities of the system. So while I am no insider, I did get a peek into our jails and their inhabitants.

    I never meant to say that criminals are “ill”. Rather, in Freudian terms, they are predisposed to crime before they even know between right and wrong, good and evil or the concept of punishment.

    I am not sure if I will actually draw any conclusions from the anecdote, I may just leave it to speak for itself. But if I would draw a conclusion it would not be a conclusion in the traditional sense. It would be something like, there are ways to change behaviors in other systems of law, especially those that tie legal wrong with ethics and morals.

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