As for the wicked man, if he repents from all his sins that he committed and he observes all My decrees and practices justice and righteousness, he shall surely live, he shall not die. All his transgressions that he committed will not be remembered against him; he shall live because of the righteousness that he did. Do I desire the death of the wicked man? - the word of the Lord. Is it not rather his return from his ways, that he might live? Ezekiel 18:21-23.
Every now and then something occurs that causes people on either side of the punishment/rehabilitation debate, to resume the ideological battle. And this is fair enough, as the issue is of great importance. I am often upset by the polarised positions often expressed on this issue, ranging from on the one hand a rejection of rehabilitation as impossible and undesirable to the other extreme, that punishment is an abuse of human rights and ineffective. At the heart of this debate is I think opposing understandings of the nature of crime and of human responsibility.
There is a perception amoungst many, that crime is caused directly by social/behavioural factors which are assumed to be almost if not totally beyond the control of the criminal, and as a result he or she is a victim of circumstance and is not in fact responsible for the criminal acts they committed. Many who accept this understanding are passionate advocates of rehabilitation and restorative justice, and often seek to minimise the use of prison as a punishment, which as a concept they reject as barbaric. There is also amoungst many people the view that crime is caused exclusively by at best the evil choices of people and at worst the product of an irredeemably evil nature. Any other factors are understood as self serving excuses best ignored. The best response to crime, according to the purveyors of this view, is harsh punishment. If possible the permanent removal of the criminal from society trough incarceration in unpleasant prisons. Even when released it is assumed that the criminal is as evil as he was when he went in, and should never be trusted again.
Clearly the above are only a synopsis of the views at each extreme, but the debates on this issue are often couched in such terms.
Any fair minded person need only look at statistics and the observation of his own eyes to see that areas of high poverty, squalor, familial breakdown and unemployment are often the sites of a great deal of crime, both petty and serious. But this correlation is by no means proof of causality. And the very presence of people exposed to the same conditions, who do not turn to crime, is a death blow to any causal theory. So what is happening? It is my belief that a person's environment exposes him to conditions that make certain criminal activity more accessible, and that the circumstances of a person's life can shape his personality in such a way, that his temptations are directed towards things that another person in a different environment with different circumstances, would not be enticed by.
As an example imagine a child educated in a dysfunctional family, and starved of affection. Imagine that this child so hungry for approval and belonging is excluded and mercilessly taunted in school because of a lack of all the "right stuff". Looking at how those classmates with possessions are recognised and accepted, this child begins to develop an unhealthy view of material possessions. He begins to view them as the source of happiness and acceptance. It is not beyond reasoned imagination that this child when older, if having an opportunity to steal something of worth, would be moved by a powerful temptation, the result of his life's circumstances, to do so in order to acquire that which he mistakenly believes will bring him happiness. We have all been caught in the vice of powerful temptations so in some way we can understand his mindset. Despite all this, if he chooses to give in to his yearning, and in fact does steal, then he is completely responsible. Nothing and no one else forced him to do it. This must never be forgotten.
It is clear that a person's upbringing and environment have a part to play, but we must for ourselves and our society never let go of the essential freedom a person has in choosing what behaviour to engage in. We loose this concept at our peril. As individuals who might have been wronged it is desirable, even obligatory, to try and extend compassion and forgiveness to whomever has harmed us. We must strive to understand the position they were in, and their motivations. As the Sages of Israel said "do not judge a person until you have stood in his place" and Jesus, echoing this teaching enlightens us with his words when he said "judge not, lest you be judged". For each and every one of us does wrong, subject as we are to desires and temptations, and our Father can either take into consideration those powerful emotions that lead us into temptation, and seek to mitigate our wrongdoing, or he could follow our own example towards our fellow man, by ignoring our negative inclinations and deeming us as simply wicked for the very act of transgression. "For with what judgement ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again."
But should the legal system operate like this too? I think not. For it must be objective. It must focus on the facts such as whether the crime was committed or not. If subjective calculations are factored in, then justice is in danger. And beyond that, our honoured courts are not in any position to forgive the wrong that was committed against others. Their job is to declare publicly that there are acts that society believes are beyond the pale. That there is a line which must never be crossed. They are there to bring justice to the victim. And they are there to deter others from pursuing the path of criminality. And to testify and defend the notion of free human beings responsible for their choices.
But it is also there to punish, but what is the purpose of punishment? Is it retribution? Restitution? Revenge? Rehabilitation? From our Holy Scriptures we see that the purpose of punishment is to bring the sinner back to goodness, and to atone for his crime. We see this when the Bible teaches us in the book of Deuteronomy;
From there (where they were exiled as punishment) you will seek the Lord your God and you will find Him, if you seek Him with all your heart and all your soul...For the Lord your God is a merciful God, He will not abandon you".
That should be the intention of our legal system when punishing. To bring the criminal back to decency, and to atone for his wrongdoing, so that when the punishment is over he is an upstanding citizen re-entering society with a clean slate.
Prison is necessary and does work. But it needs serious reform. In my own opinion it must be reserved as a punishment for the worst crimes, and for those who pose a true danger to others. It should not be used for monetary crimes. It most certainly should not be used for the genuinely mentally ill or for children.
Those who do end up in prison, as much as those who's punishments are of a community nature, must be educated. They must of course be given the practical skills and knowledge to function in society so that they can when they are released, earn their way honestly and decently, so that they can minimise their exposure to that which tempted them before. But above this they must have moral instruction. They must be taught, and if possible experience, the transcendent beauty of a life of goodness, kindness and honesty. So often in prisons there develops a society with its own rules, rooted in power, anger, greed and hatred to which people become entangled. Little wonder prisoners so often reject the values of civil society when they are released, being as alien to them as prison values are to us.
True change can happen and does happen, and it can usually only be effected when the wrongdoer is shown love and personal responsibility. When he or she understands that they have value, the true value of being made in the image of God that is, and not the puffed up self-esteem that often degenerates into self adoration, and if they understand the value of a life well lived, most will seek to embrace it and will be loathed to loose it. In our generation I give the example of Rabbi Yitzchak Dovid Grossman, who's love for those less fortunate is unquenchable. He left his sheltered home in Jerusalem to move to a crime infested town in the Galilee that had fallen victim to many vices. Through his love, focus on duty and responsibility and guided by eternal values, he turned that community around and his work with prisoners has been the most successful in his country.
There need not be any division between punishment and repentance/rehabilitation. And the purpose of the former should be to lead to the latter.
Sadly, true human evil and depravity exist. It exists in the heart of those who knowing what they do is wrong, and having been shown and offered a better way, continue to harm others and enjoy it. There is very little that anyone can do about such people, and it is best to keep them far from others until God opens their hearts to decency, or takes them from us into the world of truth. There are also those who despite punishment, or repentance, must not be freed. Those who have wilfully taken the life of an innocent human being.
We can all play a part in shaping a society that repels crime. And although it can never be 100% effective we must not stop striving. And as usual it starts with ourselves. We must strive to have a clear understanding of right and wrong. And we must recognise and do away with the little excuses we make for ourselves and the silly rationalisations we concoct. We must each day overcome our inclinations and do what is right, and by so doing raise the banner in defence of human free will and duty. We must help support families, that crucible of society, and assist them in what ever way they require. We must offer young people a greater purpose than self-gratification. At the very least we can have the courage to speak about issues of morality and right and wrong and not ignore them so as to avoid "rocking the boat".
With God's help our society will improve and more and more people will opt to live lives of service in place of selfishness.