Orion Digest №21 — Criminal Justice and Rehabilitation

The existence of the laws of a nation has often gone hand in hand with those who seek to violate them for various reasons, leaving the question of how to maintain order when breaking it is as easy as a voluntary action. Preventing crimes is the most preferred option, but in keeping the balance between freedom and justice, there is usually a window of opportunity as long as there is no absolute justice, and thus, the question becomes how to react to criminal activity. To make an example and instill a sense of either fear or satisfaction into the hearts of citizens, offenders are usually sent into a system of punishment once proven guilty, but as with social order, enforcement and punishment is a slippery slope that requires balance.

The basic element of criminal justice is imprisonment. Out of all the things that can be taken from someone, time is one of the most valuable, and depending on the severity of the infraction, so too depends the length of time one must remain locked away from the outside world. From mere years to an entire lifetime, this is intended to allow the criminal to reflect on what they’ve done, as well as to prevent them from causing any more mayhem in the meantime, with the hopes that when they come out (if they do live long enough to come out), they have learned their lesson and will be afraid of ever committing crimes again.

While the idea of robbing someone of their life can be haunting, it is a tested and effective way that keeps criminals off the streets and returns law abiding citizens. It still allows them to live and, in non-life sentences, a second chance after making a mistake, while remaining a powerful incentive for all to follow the rule of law. However, these statements describe prison in the ideal, and don’t truly capture the magnitude of the situation within. With the idea of keeping criminals away from the public comes the security of the public never seeing what happens to them behind closed doors, in facilities that can easily have off-record incidents of violence and cruelty.

A fundamental danger of any criminal justice system is the risk that, in the process of punishment, we forget that the punished are just as human as civilians, and because of that, we allow them to be treated inhumanely. While it can vary from nation to nation, there are many that make no effort to provide suitable and respectable living conditions for the prisoners, and that use the massive populations for forced labor, due to the fact that they have no say and are seen as deserving of it. Violence, both between prisoners and from guards onto prisoners is all too common, and while it is a story that has often been depicted in pop culture, but still continues to occur due to apathy and ease of concealment.

The psychological effects that imprisonment has are carried long after release — outside of the usual effects of traumatic stress, the time criminals spend in jail is on their permanent record and forever hangs over their lives. Restarting life is full of obstacles, as employment and social situations become far more difficult due to the negative stigma against former inmates. The ideal goal of criminal justice is to ensure that someone receives punishment and then continues on their way in society, but the effects of most prison systems are irreversible, with one mistake being capable of tainting one’s entire life. This may be seen as more acceptable for more serious crimes, but for those with more minor charges — robbery, drug possession, DUI — or even those falsely convicted may pay much more than originally intended for their violations.

A prison’s purpose is to ensure a safe life for law abiding citizens — to ensure that they can live with a sense of safety and order, and live their lives as unaffected by criminal activity as possible. This is accomplished both through the deterrence of potential criminals and the containment of established criminals, but citizens who don’t abide by the law are considered less of a concern the moment they break it. The moral problem is that prisons, and the cultural and social perception and connotations they create, fail to account for the rights and protection of those within them — by separating the prisoner from society, the role of the government in ensuring the prosperity of its citizens is diminished and more up to choice, due to either the lack of public perception or overall negative public perception of criminals.

Human rights must be respected, even for those who have disrespected national law, and the duty of a government must be to all of its citizens, not just those who remain in line. Justice must always be a balance, and although to be too lenient would allow a degrading of the value of law (absolute freedom), the justice system must at every level conform to basic human morals and standards; the loss of time and the confined environment is already punishment. The goal should not be solely to punish the criminal — if they are to re-enter society and not fall to the same mistakes again, they must be rehabilitated, shown the error of their ways. Otherwise, if simply held and returned, they may draw the wrong lessons — having spent time tortured by the system that led them to crime anyway, they may become even angrier, more prone to the violence they experienced then to the way they’re expected to act when they get out.

This concept is not alien, and has been tested before and shown promising results. For example, take the country of Norway. Rather than solely focusing on keeping prisoners in line, various Norwegian prisons offer classes and activities and focus on self betterment, in order to ensure that a prisoner returns to society better than they left it. To add to this effect, there is more access to visits and community interaction so that the alienation does not set in for inmates; by the time they get out, the feeling of isolation is made to be lessened. To ensure that prison employment does not act as a means of abling sadistic tendencies, staff are required to be vetted and educated on ethics and psychology, so they can better interact with criminals. Good and bad behavior are also both accounted for — inmates with noted improvement can transition to less severe levels of incarceration, while inmates that perpetuate violence and disobedience risk losing access to those same facilities, but at most transitioning to other humane facilities with more security.

The methodology of Norwegian prison systems raises the question of the practicality of such an approach — are the benefits worth the effort? Norway’s status as having one of the world’s lowest crime rates and it’s equally low rate of released inmates returning to crime seems to show the results — the focus on both humane treatment of inmates, combined with the extra expended effort to not just house but counsel and better their lives prevents a return to crime after prison, while still maintaining enough order that people try not to violate the law. The fear of punishment is still there, as the restricted freedom of imprisonment is still present, but Norwegian prison doesn’t merely try to patch over the symptoms, but get to the root of the problem. Psychologically, they try and find why prisoners committed those crimes in the first place, and help train them to balance themselves and reintegrate into society.

The question of whether modern law is moral aside, any rights aside from the freedom to leave the confines of their punishment must be awarded to inmates of the criminal justice system in a world federation, because just as human rights must be protected worldwide, they must be protected in situations like this which lend themselves to abuses. The goal of leading a beneficial and better society has to include everyone within it, because if we cannot properly reintegrate criminals into the outside world, then we are simply breaking people for our failure to provide for them. All crime stems from a reason, the conditions that surround those who break the law, whether through upbringing, hard times, improper treatment of mental health, etc. To fix these problems and to ensure that the offender can coexist requires support, not coldness, and we know it’s not impossible.