Problems with the Penal System

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

I'm becoming increasingly aware of how ill equipped our criminal justice system is to deal with many of the problems in our world. One poignant example is the mentally ill. In the 1980's the mental health institutions that had housed people with severe mental illnesses like schizophrenia were shut down, and these people were left to fend for themselves. Large numbers of them now make up the homeless. Because prison is the "institution that can't say no" many of these people end up in jail. Not for commiting crimes, but for basically acting crazy. If you have not seen it yet, there is an excellent Frontline documentary detailing this that you can watch online. They tell the story for example of a man with paranoid schizophrenia who goes into a 7/11 and is arrested for "disturbing the peace", being paranoid he freaks out when the police come and resists arrest. In jail he is uncooperative and "acts up" so in the jail system he is punished by being put in solitary confinement. This of course makes his condition worsen. This escalates until eventually he is is transfered into a maximum security prison all for an original petty crime. Not only is the prison system that is focused on punishing people the wrong place for someone with a mental illness, it is also completely unfair to the people who work there who are not trained to deal with such cases. Imagine how you would feel if someone hurled their own feces at you in a psychotic fit.

I've been reading about other examples of the inadequacy of our penal system as well in "Not for Sale". For example, girls who are kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery are often arrested for solicitation instead of being treated as victims of abuse and rape. Likewise, runaways are commonly put into juvenile detention. Because of this setup when a child sexual slavery ring was discovered, the abused and abducted girls were going to be put into detention cells. Luckily several members of a local church volunteered their homes for the girls to stay in. With this same kind of thinking, people who were trafficked as slaves into the USA are deported, often right back into the hands of those who sold them. The problem is not with the individual people in the criminal justice system. The problem is systemic: the way the institution is set up, it treats these victims as if they were criminals, and does not look for the signs of human trafficking.

The good news is that many people are working to change the system, to offer shelter, mental health services, safe houses, re-integration, rehabilitation programs, vocational training, restorative justice, drug rehab... as well as working for reform in our legal system, training of police to notice signs of modern slavery, and so on. In short, our penal system focused on punishment is slowly moving towards real justice that makes things right.

Part of that does need to involve laws and penalties that will protect children from these predators. Once you start opening your eyes to the hurt in our world, you also find that we humans are capable of profound evil. I don't want to minimize that. But Jesus died for sinners like that, and prayed for those who had just whipped and beaten him bloody and nailed him to a cross "forgive them Father, they know not what they do". Those words become all the more shocking when we really confront the profound evil in our world. We want to hurt back those who hurt others. As a father, I know I do. A parental rage boils within me when I hear such horrific stories of what people do to children. Jesus seems to have had similar feelings. Yet as Paul says in Romans, that part of us the seeks to accuse the evil in others comes back to accuse us as well. We have all been hurt, and we all have hurt others, sometimes profoundly. We need a way to deal with the brokenness and evil in our world and in ourselves that works towards restoration of the broken, including protecting the vulnerable.

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At 5:42 PM, Blogger Clay said...

Hey Derek,
For what it's worth, I'm listening to "Resurrection," the last major novel Tolstoy wrote before dying (it's a free download this month from
He spends quite a bit of time exploring the problems and abuses of the penal system (and the mindset that allows those in charge to continue their course of action).
The hero of the novel confronts the problem.
It seems that our distance from such conditions (lack of awareness)is one of the main reasons that it goes unconfronted.
Thanks for helping to bring this into the light.

At 7:07 AM, Blogger symonds said...

Very nice.............

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