In Pursuit of Empathy

This past Monday, two great things happened. First, US Attorney General Eric Holder announced that federal prosecutors would no longer be able to invoke the draconian mandatory minimum sentence laws for low-level drug offenses. A product of the failed “War on Drugs,” these mandatory minimums were almost single-handedly responsible for the 800% increase in prisoners in the US since the 1970’s, as well as a huge factor in the disproportionate incarceration of minorities.  Hours later, Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled that stop-and-frisk practices in New York were unconstitutional racial profiling. NYPD’s controversial practices unabashedly targeted minorities in police “hot-spot” neighborhoods; blacks are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana use than whites, even though the two groups use the drug at equal rates. Both of these are fantastic, hard-won rulings. But to achieve real reform within America’s criminal justice system, the public must move away from the righteous indignation and anger shown in the face of criminal behavior and adapt an approach towards rehabilitation that is founded in logic, years of research, and, crucially, empathy.

Two thirds of all the incarcerated men and women in America will return to prison within three years of their release. If any other institution in the United States had a failure rate consistent with that of our prisons, it would be immediately and summarily shut down. A hospital where two-thirds of the patients became sick again within months; a weather service that only got it right one third of the time; an airline that only delivered its passengers to the right destination 66% of the time.  Punishment fails. Isolation fails. Prisoners should be treated with the same degree of respect and compassion that we hope—and should expect—they will show to their communities after they are released.

I’ve heard all of the typical complaints about treating prisoners with humanity and aiding their re-entry into society. Why should these individuals, who broke the law, be given a helping hand in finding a job when I’m a decent American who has been out of work for months? Why should criminals be given housing and healthcare when I’m working an honest job and can barely make ends meet?  Here’s the answer: because, disregarding the depravity of the concept, we cannot afford the astronomical expense of simply locking up every criminal and throwing away the key.  The reality of budget deficits means that we have no choice but to try and adhere to the philosophy that prisoners deserve to be treated as humanely as possible. We should be building these men and women up—not breaking them down. We should give them confidence, through educational and work opportunities, and hope to have them leave as better people.

Many Americans seem to be laboring under the delusion that by acknowledging the human rights of criminals, or by observing due process in their treatment, you are taking something of value away from victims and the law-abiding populace. This could not be further from the truth. Callous punishment with no regard to individual humanity breeds resentment and crumbles communities. Why are we spending valuable funds and wasting human capital on a criminal justice system that just creates more victims?

All the positive policy changes in the world won’t be enough if the public attitude towards crime and criminals doesn’t shift. Humans are known to fulfill the identity you bestow upon them. So if we brutalize prisoners, give them no responsibility or purpose, isolate them from their loved ones, and then revile them upon release, who do we expect them to become? We can do better. We have to do better.


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