“Well, they should not have broken the law,” many people spout unsympathetically when an offender laments a period of incarceration or says how unfair it is that he no longer has the same opportunities in life as others due to his criminal record. It is easy for society to take the “they-got-what-they-deserved” stance. It is easy from an outsider’s perspective to state, “It’s simple; do not break the law.” However, such a reply overlooks the nuances of the criminal justice system and human nature.
We all break the law. Every single person in the world has broken the law at some point or another. Maybe you text and drive on a regular basis during your commute to work. Perhaps you drive 75 miles per hour in a 65-mile-per-hour zone because you believe that as long as you are not speeding too much, you will not get in trouble. Maybe you have walked the dog around the neighborhood with a beer can in violation of the open container policy.
Possibly, you have committed even more egregious law violations, and fortunately, law enforcement missed or overlooked your transgressions. Right now, maybe you are thinking about that time you drove home from your company holiday party after consuming a few too many alcoholic beverages. Maybe you recall that instance when you purchased and experimented with methamphetamine or cocaine during college. Perhaps you took out your anger on your girlfriend and gave her a black eye many years ago. Maybe, you left your one-year-old home alone napping while you ran to the grocery store; thankfully, all crises were averted. We all break the law.
Of course, life is not fair. Authority figures catch some people engaging in wrongdoings while others get away scot-free. Certain individuals are born into privilege and always have their family to fall back on during times of financial disaster. Other people procure the right connection to secure a highly sought after and extremely competitive job. Some children grow up with loving, supportive, well-rounded parents while drug-addicted, unstable parents raise—and at times abandon—other minors. We do not select our own circumstances. Life really is not fair.
Nevertheless, we can still have empathy and compassion for those whom life has dealt a more challenging hand, including those who have violated the law and authority has caught violating the law. Empathy for those entangled in the trenches of the criminal justice system begins with remembering that no one is perfect, and in fact, we have broken the law too.
Put yourself in the shoes of a person confined behind bars. Imagine if you were jailed for your violation. If it were you in the situation, you would likely have the same feelings as many of those behind bars—you too would believe you did not deserve such a harsh punishment for your transgression.
We all must sow an attitude of gratitude. Acquire and express gratitude that you did not get arrested for your mishaps, but instead, had the opportunity to reflect on your failures from the comforts of your own home as opposed to a slab of metal in the county jail. Not everyone is so lucky. Unfortunately, many individuals must spend years of their lives behind bars before ever getting the opportunity to start over in the free world.
We can all connect the dots more or less in our lives. For instance, a high school valedictorian might say that she only got to her station in life because of supportive, but demanding parents who pushed her to excel. Perhaps a certain psychologist realizes that he would never have discovered his passion for helping others in his current capacity had it not been for his horrific childhood and the continuation schools he attended. While his youth may have been tough, it made him the man he is today.
Our mistakes and failures truly do form us. We grow through adversity. We become stronger. We develop tenacity. We prevail. Just because someone has violated the law and has been caught violating the law does not mean that they are hopeless. It does not mean that they can never succeed in life. If that were the case, if mistakes really did hold you back for life, then no one would ever be successful. The world would crumble. Humanity would perish.
It is simple to say, “They did this to themselves. They’re criminals.” However, that is just a comfortable excuse that allows people to point fingers and to avoid acknowledging the pitfalls in the criminal justice system. It is really not that elementary.
In actuality, anyone could end up behind bars, and everyone has done something to deserve such punishment at one point or another. While life is not fair, we can and should have empathy for everyone behind bars. In just the blink of the eyes, that person locked away could be you, and you will cherish those who love you despite the mess you find yourself in as you sit behind bars.