“Some men see things as they are, and ask why.
I dream of things that never were, and ask why not.” – Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968)
The most powerful force depressing the consciousness vibrations of all of humankind is the fact that every human institution is fear-based. We have seen that this is true of religions, which use fear and guilt to keep the faithful in their pews; and in fact, it is true of everything we do. Humankind as a whole is not sufficiently developed spiritually even to know what a love-based institution might be like! So let’s look now at some of the differences between fear-based and love-based institutions, and then let’s consider the most destructive fear-based American institution of all so we can re-imagine how it might be replaced with a more successful version that is based in love. Fear-based institutions are:
Top-down. Every such institution has a governing body that makes and enforces the rules. That body generally lacks supervision, so it wields a lot of independent authority.
Tailored to serve the needs of their constituents and the larger society as the governing body perceives those needs to be. Over time, the decisions made by leaders of fear-based institutions tend to be more and more influenced by outside and often self-interested actors.
Allowed to wield substantial power to enforce consequences for their constituents’ infractions. The consequences that a given institution’s leadership has the power to impose might be as trivial as the loss of some privilege, or as major as the loss of one’s life.
Careless about whatever negative consequences they might create. I don’t know of any human institution of any size that doesn’t create substantial problems. Many of them create far worse problems on a much broader scale than the ones they have been entrusted to solve.
The most heinous institution in the United States gives us a good example upon which to experiment. We are hearing talk now about prison reform, but for us to undertake mere prison reform would be like applying an Ace bandage to a compound leg fracture! Our entire criminal justice system is so deeply fear-based, so pointlessly cruel, so destructive to American society, and so lacking in any redemptive qualities that we have no choice but to tear it down altogether and entirely rethink it. The Catch-22 in this, of course, is that until many more Americans are thinking from love and no longer from fear, most people still will sadly see the worst aspects of our criminal justice system as not really so bad, and probably necessary.
Whole books could be written about the many things that are wrong with our criminal justice system, so I will give you here just some of the lowlights. Hold onto your breakfast:
The US is barely 5% of the world’s population, but we hold 25% of the world’s prison population. Read that again! Even including places like China and North Korea, one in four of those incarcerated in the world is imprisoned in the United States.
A staggering 97 percent of all federal inmates and 95 percent of all state felony inmates were sentenced and imprisoned without a trial. Almost everyone now imprisoned in the United States was terrified into “pleading guilty to a lesser charge.” My research suggests that most of these people are not properly charged, or are wrongly sentenced, and a significant number of them have committed no actual crime. Some were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
More than six million Americans are currently in prison or on probation. To think of this differently, the current US prison population is larger than the populations of 15 states; and to feed, clothe, house, and provide healthcare for a group this size is an industry approaching $200 billion in annual costs.
More than half of current inmates do not pose a special danger to society. One in five is incarcerated for a nonviolent drug offense, and those who are imprisoned for violent crimes are no more than forty percent overall. Perhaps surprisingly, statistics indicate that some of those who committed the most violent crimes now pose no elevated threat. For example, rapists and murderers are among the folks who are least likely to re-offend.
Conditions in prisons are deliberately dehumanizing. Prisoners are treated like immoral criminals without rights, just as you will be treated if you run afoul of some aggressive prosecutor. You may be denied family visits and allowed little contact with the outside world; you will be limited in what you can read or watch on TV, and how you might use a computer; and all of this will happen at the whims of your keepers. If your mother dies while you are in prison, you won’t be going to her funeral. If you are moved to a prison far away from those you love, that will be tough luck for them and for you.
Punishment does not end when you leave prison. Former inmates are often permanent second-class citizens, without the right to vote or to access public benefits. More than ten million Americans collectively owe over $50 billion in fines and fees associated with their arrest, conviction, and incarceration that many will never find a way to pay. Even very wealthy ex-felons can have access to their assets limited for years after they have entirely paid their debt to society. Indeed, those who are incarcerated for more than six or seven years will often become so conditioned to prison that they can no longer lead productive outside lives.
And what of the children? More than half of America’s prison inmates have minor children. More than a million fathers and 220,000 mothers have left almost three million children without one or both of their parents. One in nine black children has an incarcerated parent today, and a father’s incarceration has serious implications for children and their ability to succeed in school due to associated patterns of aggression and delinquency.
Our poisonous criminal justice system is the single biggest reason for the ongoing disparities between black and white Americans. It is tragically not an overstatement to say that ever since the Civil War, in many ways this nation has been criminalizing the very condition of being black and male. For example, in 1970 blacks were twice as likely to be arrested for drug crimes. By 1990, it was four times. Today, it’s about three times as likely. It is easy to assume that this is because blacks use and sell drugs at proportionately higher rates, but data consistently shows that this is not the case. The incarceration rate for blacks is seven times the rate for whites. In twelve states, more than half the prison population is black. One in 87 working-age white men is in prison, vs. one in twelve working-age African American men. And the loss of the presence of so many fathers has created a “school-to-prison pipeline” for young black men, so there are prisons now in which grandfather, father, and son share a cellblock.
As far back as 1972, thoughtful judges were decrying our criminal justice mess. For example, an opinion of the US District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin (340 F. Supp. 544 [W.D. Wis. 1972], April 6, 1972) said, “With respect to the intrinsic importance of the challenges, I am persuaded that the institution of prison probably must end. In many respects it is as intolerable within the United States as was the institution of slavery, equally brutalizing to all involved, equally toxic to the social system, equally subversive of the brotherhood of man, even more costly by some standards, and probably less rational.”
If we were to take the entire criminal justice system down to base and rebuild it as a love-based institution, how would it differ from our present train wreck? A love-based institution is:
Bottom-up. The needs of those the institution serves come even before any public needs. In the case of a rethought criminal justice system, concentrating on turning convicts into more successful members of society would be this institution’s main goal.
Responsive to society’s overall needs. The fact that nearly all convicts will return to life on the street means that prisons must avoid disrupting prisoners’ lives any more than is absolutely necessary.
Empowering to those they serve. The fact that so many of those who run our prisons are petty tyrants who beat prisoners down emotionally would be anathema to a love-based institution.
Careful to do no harm. A love-based institution treads lightly, always seeking out and working promptly to correct any unintended consequences.
Building a love-based criminal justice system is going to take considerable research and effort, but these will likely be its main characteristics:
Nonviolent offenders will pay their debts to society while remaining in their homes. Felons will each follow their own individualized programs of education, work, fines and reparations, counseling, and community service, with always the background threat of incarceration to ensure their ongoing cooperation. Instead of sitting in prison, these people can be parenting their children, maintaining their relationships, and responsibly supporting themselves and their families as they continue to build productive long-term careers.
Any prison sentence of more than two years’ duration will require a jury trial. With prisons now limited to holding only violent offenders, prosecutors will be further limited to cases they believe can be proven. And due to the costs and time delays of trial, the only people tried will be those who have committed serious violent crimes. For lesser crimes, plea-bargaining for sentences of two years or less can remain in place.
There will be a mechanism to promptly restore full civil rights to nonviolent offenders, including banking and firearms privileges and the right to vote. And after a nonviolent offender has maintained a clean record for five years after having left the system, all his criminal records will be sealed. No longer will a plea-bargained prison sentence impair any nonviolent offender’s ability to go back to living a normal life.
Having examined some of the differences between fear-based and love-based ways to handle the same set of complex social problems, it is time for us to consider how we might best begin to rebuild all our core institutions from a base of love and not of fear. It is essential that we do this soon! For so long as we continue to subject ourselves to the tyranny of powerful fear-based institutions, we will be severely impairing everyone’s ability to move beyond fear as humanity’s primary motivating force. It may well be that until we have replaced not just our fear-based religions, but also all our other fear-based institutions, we will remain forever stuck in the mire of negativity that pervades every human culture now. We have got to start somewhere!
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” – Rabbi Hillel the Elder (c.110 BCE-10 CE)
Penitentiary photo credit: Onasill ~ Bill Badzo – New Format <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/7156765@N05/48512361822″>Rawlins Wyoming – Wyoming State Penitentiary – Historic Prison</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>(license)</a>
Black man photo credit: Benjamin Disinger <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/92014410@N06/16336104359″>Marco Martinez</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>(license)</a>
Young family photo credit: Anirudh Koul <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/84856173@N00/3801955554″>Mommy, Daddy & the Budding Baby</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/”>(license)</a>
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