Crime and Punishment. Taking another look at dysfunctional behavior.

by Ross Bishop

We treat dysfunctional behaviors such as crime, domestic abusers, school shooters,  pedophiles, neo-Nazis, gang members and even substance abusers all differently without realizing that they are expressions of pain that comes from the same source. Realizing that might shift our treatment of these things dramatically.

We have punished these behaviors for many years because truthfully, we didn’t know what else to do with them. We still don’t. Today we send some addicts to “rehab,” and although some do get clean, they rarely deal with the underlying pain that drove them to abuse in the first place. The same thing is true for burglars, gang members, neo-Nazis, etc., all the way up the criminal food chain.

The current U.S. incarcerated population is 6,750,000, costing $74 billion per year. If you add to that the people who are still on the street – the substance abusers, parolees, gang members, white supremacists, at large criminals, etc., who are not currently confined to jail or in rehab, the costs to society, overt and hidden, are simply astronomical! 

In addition to all that, if you then factor in the inexcusable rates of recidivism for criminals (83%), and 40-60% for drug addicts, those numbers speak volumes to the failure of the present approaches to provide meaningful answers to the problem. And each one of these people represents a failure on our part to help someone who is troubled and in need.

This is because we are warehousing the problem, in a very few cases treating symptoms, and nowhere addressing the underlying causes that drive the problem. And the corporations running our prison industry system don’t care. They do just enough to insure that prisoners do their time, don’t kill each other and don’t riot. Besides, having repeat offenders means more business for them.

If you look beneath the surface of addiction, Nazism, criminal behavior, school shooters or even chronic homelessness, you find that the core of the problem is a deep seated feeling of alienation from other people and from the community. And in many cases that has given rise to significant levels of hostility and rage. And in every one of these cases, those feelings began in childhood. 

These folks grew up with multiple stressors, the combination and intensity of which few others experience. It is difficult for us to imagine what life growing up was like for them.  Poverty, family violence, gangs, racism, street violence, drug and alcohol abuse, an insufferably bad education and parental neglect are just a few of the stressors. No life is without challenges, but these individuals grew up with their emotional bank accounts drained – without the resilience that you have – what rehab experts speak of as “recovery capital,” that would allow them to deal with life’s challenges as you do. And besides that, they must face far greater challenges. We know that when exposed to stressors like that, people are more likely to exhibit challenging behaviors and more problems in relationships both at home and at work.

Humans are interdependent beings. We need strong, meaningful relationships to survive. It is very difficult to be successful in life without strong support and guidance while growing up. Our relationships give us resources that people living in the ghetto or barrio just don’t have. And as Urie Bronfenbrenner, who helped found Head Start said, “In order to develop, a child needs the enduring, irrational involvement of one or more adults in care and joint activity with the child. Somebody has to be crazy about that kid.” 

What we  in the West need is a large dose of what the Nguni tribe of Africa know as “Ubuntu,” Ubuntu means “the quality of being human.” According to sociolinguist Buntu Mfenyana, it “is embodied in the oft-repeated: “Ubuntu ngumtu ngabanye abantu” (“A person is a person through other people”). Ubuntu expresses the view that we owe our selfhood to others, that we are first and foremost social beings, that, if you will, no man/woman is an island. Ubuntu calls on us to mirror our humanity for each other. Desmond Tutu explains: 

“A person is a person through other persons. None of us comes into the world fully formed. We would not know how to think, or walk, or speak, or behave as human beings unless we learned it from other human beings. We need other human beings in order to be human.”

Amongst the Nguni, when someone does something wrong, he is taken to the center of the village and surrounded by his tribe for two days while they speak of the good he has done. They believe that each person is good, yet sometimes we make mistakes, which is really a cry for help. They unite in this ritual to encourage the person to reconnect with his true nature. The belief is that unity and affirmation have more power to change behavior than shame or punishment. 

A story: “A journalist was assigned to do a story in Lebanon. Walking through the bombed-out streets of Beirut one day, he heard some beautiful music coming from a doorway. He wandered over to where the music was coming from and there he saw a young man playing a flute. The music was beautiful, but the flute was the weirdest looking instrument he had ever seen. He got as close as he could properly get when the young man stopped playing, smiled and handed him the instrument. It was not until he held the flute did the journalist understand. For what this young Lebanese boy had done was to find in some field a discarded rifle, re-bore holes in the barrel of that rifle and transform the gun into a flute.”

Instead of searching for “the criminal mind,” as criminologists are wont to do, we need to look at really bad parenting and seriously dysfunctional family and social environments. Ask a beat cop in any community and they will tell you what families the troubled kids and gang members come from.

Interview gang members and they will tell you that the biggest reason they stay in the the gang is that it “gives them a feeling of family.” We also find in these people feelings of bitterness and rage that easily escalate into violence and crime. And all the negatives notwithstanding, crime is often easy, good money in an environment with few other meaningful opportunities. 

And so it goes, all the way up the chain from substance abusers to dealers, to burglars and white collar criminals, to domestic abusers and child molesters. Each represents an “out” for a person who feels trapped by social circumstances and is willing to cut corners, risk incarceration and social condemnation to gain (they hope) some relief from the pain they feel and revenge against a society that has wronged them.

The saving grace is that within these individuals there is a deep, unfulfilled yearning for acceptance and connection. It is human nature to desire to be treated with dignity. Some of these people are so closed off that they are virtually unreachable, and to get them one must cut through layers of rejection, pain, defensiveness and mistrust, but it can be done. And it never ceases to amaze me how people glow when they find true connection with others, when they are given permission to accept themselves and what they truly want from life. The sad thing is that up until now, this opportunity has been denied most of these people.

If we look around we can find rays of hope in individual efforts that are putting dysfunctional behavior into a totally different context from its historical perspectives. These efforts at “ubuntu” are having an impact in crime prevention, recidivism and drug abuse. At the core of each of these successful programs is the creation of acceptance and a feeling of community where once rejected addicts, the chronic homeless or previously violent felons can come to feel valued and respected. The most effective solutions to recidivism involve a job or the creation of a team or group activity around which trust, acceptance and respect can be created. 

In 2001 the Portuguese government did something that the United States would find completely unacceptable. After many years of waging a fierce war against drugs, Portugal decided to flip its strategy entirely: It decriminalized drug use. And almost twenty years later, Portugal has not been run into the ground by a nation of addicts. In fact, by almost any measure, it is doing far better than before.

In Portugal if someone is found in possession of less than a 10-day supply of anything from marijuana to heroin, he or she is recommended to a three-person Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction, typically made up of a lawyer, a doctor and a social worker. The commission recommends treatment or a minor fine, about like one of our parking tickets. In the vast majority of cases, there is no penalty at all. But by not criminalizing the problem, by not stigmatizing the offender and not involving law enforcement and providing community help and support, the individual is freer to address his or her underlying problems.

In Richmond, California, Andrew Stoloff has created Rubicon Bakers, one of a number of companies around the country that helps rebuild lives by employing, training, and supporting people who need a second chance. Employees come to Rubicon from a life on the streets, from prison or have recently recovered from substance abuse. Rubicon’s Stoloff says, “We provide employment so they can turn their lives around. That is central to the concept of healing as opposed just “getting by.”

In Minneapolis a gym has been created where ex-cons and troubled teens can work out together, share their troubles and learn about healthy diet. In Baltimore, Lynn Zwerling has created a remarkable program teaching knitting to prison inmates. Hardened criminals sit in a circle, learning to knit caps for themselves while building community through mutual  acceptance, sharing their stories, concerns and problems. If you are interested, Lynn has a Facebook page, “Knitting Behind Bars.”

Journalist Glenn Greenwald has created a pet shelter in Rio de Janeiro that only hires homeless people who love animals. (Please notice the human -animal bond. It speaks forcefully to the premise of this article.) Greenwald writes:

In the last two years, our work with animals has taken on a new focus: working with homeless people who live on the streets with their pets. At first glance, this situation can seem grim and depressing: Many assume that animals who live on the street with homeless companions are mistreated or deprived.

But, far more often, the truth is the opposite: The bond that forms between homeless people and their homeless pets is often strong, deep and more profound than many can imagine. The mutual need, and resulting intense devotion, that homeless people and their animals develop for one another is inspiring and can be unlike what one might find in any other context.

The compassion, empathy and self-sacrifice defining the relationship between those who are homeless and their pets is extraordinary. It is difficult to explain how affecting it is to watch a hungry, homeless person receive a desperately needed meal and, without a second thought, instantly divide it in half to share it with their hungry dog or cat.

In Austin, TX, Community First! Village was created to get the most chronically homeless off the streets and into places they can call home. There they are building a community that cares for each other. Founder Alan Graham comments that, “Providing a home is not enough. We believe that housing will never solve homelessness, but community will. Because within each of us innately are two fundamental human desires: to be fully and wholly loved and to be fully and wholly known.”

People who were usually firmly disciplined as children, see this approach as being “soft,” on criminals, the homeless, drug addicts, etc. They just want these people to “get a job,” conveniently and perhaps purposefully, ignoring what it took for these people to get to where they are. That attitude reflects the traditional desire to “punish” those who have violated accepted social norms and are unable to live like the rest of us. What conservatives often miss is that many (not all) of these people would, if they could.

copyright©Blue Lotus Press 2019

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