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?