Of course the criminal justice system does not work. Unlike successful community groups, the criminal justice system has a foundation of hate. The criminal justice system tells those who enter the revolving door, “You are the scum of the earth. You are an outcast. You will never amount to anything. You are a waste of life. You need to be locked behind bars for as long as possible.”
How do you expect anyone to succeed in a system with such an attitude? We would expect a young child who grew up in similar conditions—a household where her parents hated her and told her she would always be a failure in life—to struggle. Yes, some people do persevere in times of repeated and extreme adversity, but many do not. Biologically, certain individuals internalize constant negative feedback and believe that changing their circumstances is impossible. If others repeatedly call them stupid, lazy, or a disappointment, then it must be true.
The societal groups and programs premised on love, not hate, are the ones where the members are most likely to flourish. Take recovery groups, for instance. Why are recovery groups so successful? Because of love. In recovery groups for overcoming addictions, individuals come to the group when they are at their personal rock bottom and they feel as if they have nothing left to try. Those individuals at rock bottom lay out all their flaws, failures, and deepest secrets to a group of complete strangers. In response, the group tells these perfectly imperfect human beings that they are loved and to keep coming back. They are accepted. They are wanted.
Even if individuals in recovery circles relapse, the group does not shun them. Instead, members hand out hugs freely as they repeat the familiar phrase, “Keep coming back.” Everyone has a seat. Everyone is welcome. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop engaging in the damning addictive behavior.
Additionally, members of recovery groups come from all walks of life, and they serve one another. A prominent doctor will graciously volunteer to sponsor, or mentor, a homeless alcoholic. A lawyer will enthusiastically agree to give a former junkie or a bank robber a ride to the meetings. The group treats every member as an equal. After all, putting oneself on a pedestal only provides a temporary hit of ego and a false sense of superiority.
Likewise, love and service are the foundations of religions around the world. A church, for example, is a place where people congregate to worship God, love one another, and serve one another. Buddhism teaches its followers, “Treat not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” (Udana-Varga 5.18.) Islam proclaims, “Not one of you truly believes until you wish for others what you wish for yourself.” (The Prophet Muhammad, Hadith.) Judaism states, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.” (Hillel, Talmud, Shabbat 31a.) Other religions have variations of the same teaching.
Nevertheless, the same people that belong to community groups premised on love are the first to apply the presumption of guilt or scorn those in prison. “That person is a criminal! Lock him behind bars and throw away the key!,” they exclaim. Those same societal members are the ones who do not believe an arrestee who says that he truly wants to better his life, that he wants help with his drug addiction. Those individuals are the people who believe that anyone with a criminal history is a manipulative liar. Instead of making the person in trouble with the law feel loved and like a valuable member of society, many people berate the individual until even he believes that redemption is impossible.
People recover in twelve-step groups despite horrendous backgrounds. People change their ways in church due to the love and support they receive from their peers. Students on athletic teams who have encouraging coaches excel with hard work. Musicians who practice rigorously and have encouraging mentors become extraordinary in time. It is not a secret that support and love coupled with willingness breed success.
Therefore, instead of undermining those in legal trouble, it is time to uplift them. It is time that we love and believe in those wrapped up in the criminal justice system. We do not have to condone their actions. We do not have agree with their previous life choices. However, we also must be empathetic and embrace our broken fellows as no one is perfect. Each and every person has made mistakes before and will continue to make poor choices at some point in life. By judging those behind bars, we are condemning ourselves.
People really do change, and people are more likely to change in a loving environment. Are we, as a society, ready to take on the challenge of truly loving one another, including the so-called criminals? While unfortunately the true answer is probably no, we really should be ready to fully embrace the Golden Rule. We all need love and community to thrive. It is time to change our approach and love those behind bars despite their flaws. Like everyone else, people in custody are only human. No one wants to be lonely.