By Vickie Wilcher
“Zero Tolerance.” “Mandatory Sentencing.” “Three strikes.” And of course, the infamous “War on Drugs.” These ideas all have two very important things in common: 1) they were ill-conceived notions designed from a punitive thought place and 2) they didn’t work.
In fact, major cities across the country, now, years after the advent and execution of the policies associated with these concepts, are reporting upticks in crimes of every sort. But what’s curious is that no-one, not even those “leaders” who profess to be concerned about the health, safety and well-being of their constituents, seems to have put any real effort into moving us away from these failed measures. Their response to the rise in murder, robbery, rape and the many other offences carried out by a growing number of people appears to be to simply repeatedly recite some version of the “tough on crime” mantra: “This behavior will not be tolerated;” “These people will be hunted down and brought to justice;” and so on.
Even the general public ways in. Several callers on a popular talk radio show discuss how the perpetrators of the recent rash of crimes should simply know better and deserve whatever punishment they are dealt. But there are others, seemingly a quiet minority, who understand that for years we as a society have addressed only symptoms of criminal behaviors. We have done little, if anything to address the causes of the violent epidemic that constantly lingers in our mist.
Sure, whenever there is a major occurrence or outbreak Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Sandy Bland…) someone rushes to put a Band-Aid on the gunshot wound. But aside from these hasty, half-hearted, reactionary, but often press-worthy deeds and comments, society’s collective response has been sluggish at best and clearly doesn’t illustrate a genuine desire to cure the highly infectious, culture based disease that threatens the whole of our society.
A truer testament to our proposed desire for healing and to correct the problems and illnesses before us would be to move collectively away from the failed thinking of the past—the thinking that brought us laws and policies that allow a man to kill a child because he has a right to “stand his ground;” or policies that make it possible for a mother to be torn from her children and imprisoned because she fired a warning shot at her abusive partner (obviously the law enabling one to stand their ground did/does not apply to her); or further still, policies that make it ok for 1 in 5 children to go bed hungry every night or for 50% of our children to drop out of school.
Given the current uptick in criminal activity, it seems reasonable to ask, “Why don’t we try something new; why don’t we try to do something to help those people who driven to act out in violent and/or hurtful ways; why, with all the intelligence we claim to have, do we keep recycling only slightly modified versions of the same old punitive policies aimed at making someone pay, instead of sincerely addressing the ills before us?” Think if you will, of how different the outcome would have to be if our solutions were based in love and caring versus the perennial lock-‘em-up-and throw away the key model.
According to most social scientist and spiritual and religious teachers, it is doubtful that anyone wakes up one morning and says to him/herself without reason or provocation at all, that today I will become a criminal. I will sell and/or take drugs. I will kill an innocent person. I will rape, rob and pillage because my goal is to be a criminal. Now, the operative words in this statement are clearly “without reason or provocation.” Thus it might be argued that if we understood better what reasons and provocations were for anyone’s behavior, we might better understand how to help them shift their own thinking in ways that would lead to different behaviors.
It’s also evident at this point that there is no silver bullet policy or law that can properly and comprehensively address the issue of increasing crime. But it is also evident that thoroughly examining the needs and experiences of those who sporadically and chronically commit crimes; with the intent of helping them is an option that upon even the slightest study, suggests a greater, more positive harvest—truly yielding transformed minds, hearts and behaviors.
For instance, and in the simplest analogous form possible: A young man walks into a store. He robs the cashier and flees. Onlookers and those who hear of the event later might say, “That’s a damn shame, that’s why we can’t keep a store in our neighborhood;” or he oughtta be ashamed of himself;” and on and on go the disparaging remarks. The police and elected officials chime in to say, “We will bring him to justice.” Now to be very, very clear here, this writing is not to suggest that our thief be simply exonerated, left to rob again and again. It is, however, meant to call attention to his circumstance. What if we learned that he had dropped of school in the 9th grade, he’d been abused as a child, and he’s virtually homeless now; and has no idea how to even begin to look for a job? What if we learned that he was simply hungry, that his family was hungry and this was the only way he could see to come up with money for food? Could/would we think differently about him? Would we finally try to help him to overcome his challenges so that he might become a more whole, peaceful and productive human being?
These questions are as applicable in the case of the murderer, the drug dealer and any other perpetrator out there. And if we are to be a good society, we will need to look past the criminal behavior of some of those among us to find the cause, and then treat that cause. This will take time deep consideration and care. Finding the cures to what ails so many of us will neither necessarily be quick or easy. But if we dare to engage in the search from a place of caring and call forth a true will to transform the very culture that permits, even perpetuates such behaviors, we will undoubtedly see a significant reduction in criminal activity—the two: the darkness of wanton acts hurt and harm and the light of authentic caring cannot exist together.
It’s one thing to suggest taking all the guns off the streets or locking up or killing as many criminals as possible; but quite another to suggest giving a potential shooter help, hope and healing. In the case of the latter, our perpetrator would likely not have the inclination, in his/her heart or mind to bring harm to another. Knowing this, it seems more than odd that the powers that be (the collective mass) won’t execute a hard and fast shift to a new approach, a new culture in which personal objectives are not centered on greed and materialism and where criminal behavior is the exception. Simply put, this is the only true solution to the “uptick.”