Thursday, July 29, 2010

Relationships We'd Rather NOT Have.

If “Location, location, location” is the mantra for the Real Estate business, then “Communicate, communicate, communicate” should be that of Relationships.  Relationships are fundamental to our human existence.  Therefore, so is our need to communicate.  But is this also true for negative relationships, relationships that have harmed us?

We readily acknowledge our relationship with family, friends and loved ones.  But how many of us are aware that we also have a relational connection with our rivals, offenders, and enemies?  These are inverted, negative relationships, which we are usually unwilling to acknowledge for they are hurtful and may have done us serious harm.  And yet, ironically, by failing to acknowledge them, we can actually prevent ourselves from moving beyond them.

For example, the minute an offense is made against an unsuspecting victim a direct and immediate relational connection is made between that victim and his/her offender.  This is a painful and agonizing truth for the victim, but it’s real nonetheless.  The irony is that as long as the victim refuses to see or acknowledge that such a “relationship” exists, the more difficult it is for the victim to find the ability to overcome the emotional and psychological damage done and move beyond its consequence toward real healing.  The offender becomes a kind of haunting ghost-presence.  Likewise, as long as the offender refuses to acknowledge that she/he has “connected” with the victim, by the fact of the crime perpetrated against her, and therefore owes that victim a personal obligation to “make things right,” the offender distances himself from being able to find ease, peace, or release and redemption from her guilt, like one unable to wash his hands of blood stains.  (Note: I use “him” and “her” interchangeably to denote either/or: he or she, him or her.)

Seeing true remorse and repentance, including full ownership and acknowledgement of one’s culpability on the part of an offender, is a cornerstone in the ability to experiencing a real sense of justice for a victim; ideally the offender will own and admit guilt to the very person(s) that have been harmed by the offense, coupled with a willingness to do what one can to correct and make good for the damage done.  Such a dynamic presumes the recognition that a kind of inverted relationship now exists between victim and offender.  It also assumes open, purposeful and intentional communication between victim and offender with the purpose of transforming what was a harmful and negative relational dynamic into a neutral (if not positive) one.  But of course, that’s ideally speaking, and, last I’ve looked, we do not live in an ideal world.  So, how does this work in the real world?

Principles don’t change by the circumstance or context; they just need to be applied appropriately to fit the actual conditions.  In the case of victim/offender dynamics, the principle of relational communication and the need for ownership and acknowledgement, as well as for remorse, and the willingness to makes things right on the part of the offender does not change, even in this less than ideal world.  Thus, the Restorative Justice Process continues to invite the offender to do these things (regardless of whether or not the offender is actually able to do so directly to his/her victim).

In an actual and real appropriate manner, an offender should be able and willing to do the following:

  Take responsibility by owning up (“manning up” as many male inmates would say) and communicate this as clearly as possible to any and all appropriate “stakeholders.”

  Humanize their victim by visualizing them as actual people with real and similar desires, heartaches, wants, and needs.

  Identify and name the consequences to their victim(s) of the harm that they have done.  Consider the many possible needs that arise from the harm that has been done and find direct or indirect ways to address these needs as much as is possible within their own circle of influence.

  Value the victim has having priority over the offender when considering needs and consequences.

Thus, Restorative Justice (RJ) is not “offender friendly” at the expense of the victim.  Far from it!  But it does recognize that there is a “relational dynamic” between victims and their offenders and seeks to at least neutralize the powerful negative impact of that inverted “relationship.”  In that light, RJ would ask victims to avoid totally demonizing offenders, to see them as human with the potential for actual change and correction and not simply dismiss him/her as an “animal” or a “monster.”  Proper, structured, and intentional communication can be part of the healing process for the victim and can lead to constructive and corrective responsiveness on the part of the offender so that he/she can begin to “make things right.”

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

What is Justice Exactly?

What is Justice?  That is, what is the aim of justice?  What needs and whose needs are being addressed by its application?

Is justice simply retribution, “getting what you deserve,” “payback time!”?  If it is, shall we also assume that Retributive Justice includes the element of deterrence, “Let that be a warning to you and to others; next time you’ll think twice before doing that again!”?  But is this sufficient?  Does this fully satisfy what the victim needs when he/she demands justice, not to mention the needs of the community, or even the offender?  In short, doesn’t the very concept of Justice run far deeper and extend much further than the simple idea of retribution: “You hurt me, now we’re going to hurt you, but even more so!”?

Yes, this is a topic that academicians, doctors of jurisprudence, sociologists, ethicists, and theologians discuss, write, and debate about daily.  But the question is not merely an academic one.  Nor is it one that only academics and professionals should be privileged to discuss.  We, common citizens and members of our communities, are huge stakeholders in the practical workings of justice in our society.  We pay dearly for the lack of it; indeed, systemic injustice can be quite subversive and oppressive and can wreak havoc in a society.  And yet we pay quite handsomely for its implementation; the halls of justice may not be paved with gold but they are most certainly built with pillars of marble, which is not cheap.  Thus, the average citizen should have much to understand and say about how justice should work in our communities.

We humans demand, nay, we need, justice.  But what constitutes that need?  It’s not just a matter of retribution.  Retributive action does not fully satisfy one’s longing for justice, though it certainly helps.  Most victims want something more from the justice process.  Yet many come away from the process feeling unsatisfied, sometimes even re-victimized in our present system, as it is.

Going back to my initial question, what is justice, what if the basis of justice is first and foremost a relational issue and only secondarily an abstract, legal question?  That is to say, what if justice primarily has to do with human relationships and is only latently related to the breaking of a law; the “Law” itself being a servant to the maintenance and cultivation of positive, healthy, and just relational dynamics between persons or groups of persons within a community?  That is, what if the core of justice has to do with human relational dynamics?  And what if our present judicial system tends to dehumanize people, victims and offenders, rather than respecting their humanity, by only addressing abstract, impersonal, legal issues, the law, while failing to address the fundamental relational question which the law is supposed to serve?  If that’s the case, is it possible that the trajectory of our present judicial system is moving away from, rather than toward actual justice, in principle?

For example, what are some of the needs that victims have, after they have suffered a crime against their person and/or property?  For one, victims would welcome information from the offender, “Why me?  Why was I targeted?  Did I do or say anything to make this happen, if so what was it?  What was my offender thinking about, at the time?”  Victims want to know: who, how, where, when and most especially, WHY?  Likewise, victims want to be heard.  They need to tell what happened, not once but perhaps many times over.  They need listening ears.  Victims would especially like the offender to “get it,” that is, to really know how the offender’s actions negatively affected them, the hurt, the cost, the pain, and the unrecoverable losses they’ve had to endure because of the offender’s crime.  Furthermore, victims need re-empowerment.  Being victimized often results in a loss of confidence that one is really safe.  Fear and anxiety may now rule where confidence and self-assurance used to reign.  Victims need to recover a sense of control over their lives. They need empowerment.  And finally, though this is not at all an exhaustive list, victims need vindication and restitution.  They need assurance that the offender has taken or will take responsibility for his/her action and the harm they have caused the victim.  Considering Victims’ needs alone, we must admit that simple Retributive Justice within our present judicial process does little to meet them.

There is no panacea for perfect justice in this world.  But we can always make our present system better and keep it moving in the right direction.  I believe the Restorative Justice approach can help us do exactly that.  For example, Restorative Justice begins by seeing crime as primarily a violation against very real people and interpersonal relationships and secondarily as a crime against the impersonal & very abstract State.  Secondly, because a crime is a violation against persons it creates an obligation, on the part of the offender, toward the offended person(s).  Thirdly, at its core, the offender’s obligation is to, as much as possible, “make things right” for the victim (beyond mere retribution).  Thus, under Restorative Justice, the process of seeking and getting just satisfaction never loses sight of the personal relational dynamic that is at the heart of justice.  Contrast that to the State’s response to crime, which practically sets aside the needs of the victim (produced by the crime) and simply focuses on the administering of punishment to the guilty, acting as if the crime was against the State and only the State, often leaving the victim utterly dissatisfied with the process and its end result.

I would like to say more about Restorative Justice in the future.  For now, I will give an unsolicited plug for a little booklet on the subject.  To get a good sense of what Restorative Justice is, I strongly encourage the reading of The Little Book of Restorative Justice by Howard Zehr (Good Books, 2002).  It’s small, well written, and easy to read.  It serves as an excellent introduction to the subject.  It’s only about $5.00 and can be easily ordered online.  I would also note that Restorative Justice Principles Practices and Values are applicable in many contexts other than the judicial one, schools and businesses for example.  And so I believe that it is well worth your time and effort, Dear Reader, in becoming acquainted with the content and substance of the Restorative Justice Process and direction.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Correctional Change is Always Good

CHANGE can be either good or bad.  It depends.

The young welcome change, they still have plenty of mystery in the world to be surprised by, to explore and be taken in by its wonder.  Still waking up to the world, they welcome the unknown, the uncommon and unconventional.  It’s delightful, even exhilarating.   It’s a new adventure, and kills boredom.  Thus, the young love the outward, forward, external, active movement that change brings them.  It makes them feel alive!  Yes, for them change is good.

Not so for the elderly.  The older we get the less we like it.  Reluctantly and not without a good fight we yield and give way to the inevitable.  We gain weight, sag, lose our 20/20 vision, thin our hair, and wrinkle our faces.  In short, we fall apart.  We age.  And so we grow accustom to our routines, our regularity and depend upon it in a desperate attempt to keep ourselves together.  Not good, this change!

“You’ve changed.  You’re different somehow, in a better way, of course.”  Ever have someone say that to you, hoping in fact that they would notice the change in you?  And they did.  And it made you feel good.  And you were encouraged to keep at it, making things better, righting some wrongs in your life, and perhaps even making amends.  You got the confirmation you were looking for, hoping for.  You’re on the right track.  It’s a wonderful feeling.  That’s a good change!  Let us not confuse outward, external change—of environment, conditions, events, context, situation, or body—with internal, inner change—a change of mood, mind, heart, soul, or spirit.  Whether at fifteen or fifty, child or aged adult, inner change—inner growth, maturity, wisdom, insight, and development of perspective, character, or person—is always good!

We do believe inner change is possible, don’t we—transformation, rehabilitation, revitalization, conversion, awakening, enlightenment, renewal?  Perhaps we’ve experienced it for ourselves.  People do change for the better.  It is possible.  We know.  It’s been done.  We’ve seen it.  Not all, but many.  Not completely, but significantly.  Not always quick or immediate but lastingly and enduringly.  Yes, people do change for the better, from mean to kind, from hateful to loving, from bad to good, from a Scrooge to the nicest, most generous and pleasant neighbor one can ever hope to have.  This is why we believe in “second chances,” isn’t it?

If we really believe this, why are we spending more and more State tax dollars in locking-up so many, many more non-violent criminals in our PA prisons, even while our State economy is so strained?  Why are we not investing these dollars in better means of rehabilitating, correcting, changing, and revitalizing men and women rather than merely housing, feeding, and locking them down, which amounts to only furthering their life of crime afterwards?  Karen Heller wrote an article for The Philadelphia Inquirer entitled, In Pennsylvania, prison still a growth industry (Sunday, 27 June, 2010).  She says, “Pennsylvania leads the nation in people serving life without parole, including almost 450 inmates sentenced as children, which suggest that we believe no one can ever be rehabilitated.”

Our politicians are running around campaigning that their “tough on crime” policies are working, simply because they’re locking up more people and are willing to throw away the key as they do.  Meanwhile we tax payers are paying the stiff price for it but are seeing no real gain, advantage, or success from it.  It’s a politician’s dream come true!  He (or she) gets elected, and receives tons of money for the perception of being effective while supporting a growth industry that caters to him (the developing Prison-complex industry).  But it’s a taxpayer’s worst nightmare: (1) we elect politicians who actually make things worse by inane, simplistic, and shallow policies on a complex issue.  (2) We pore tons of money toward a politician’s cause based on misleading, empty, and ineffective promises.  And (3) our tax dollars are wasted on a money hungry, growing complex business/administrative structure (our PA State Correctional Institute, Prison system—SCI’s) that not only fails to adequately address the problem for which it was created, but becomes larger and more expensive and more complicated to dismantle over the years, because of the very same empty-headed, election-pleasing rhetoric that gets the politician elected in the first place.  And it’s our fault.  We’re letting it happen, saying little about it, and doing nothing to stop it!

“…which suggest that we believe no one can ever be rehabilitated.”  We don’t believe this do we?  But if the saying is true, “Action speaks louder than words,” it appears that we do.  That is, we are acting as if rehabilitation is not worth the effort, though it cost far less to rehabilitate than to incarcerate.  We Pennsylvanians are busily expanding old and building new prisons, far outstripping the actual crime rate.  If we want less government and better, more efficient tax spending, then we need to look at our prison system and the policies that are leading to an over bloated prison industry complex and cut waste there.

What to do?  We must stop catering to the politician’s favorite but simplistic mantra while running for office, “Vote for me because I’m tough on crime,” and must demand the following of our politicians: (1) stop submitting general and unaccountable “tough on crime, lock everybody up and throw away the key,” type of crime bills.  Start incarcerating with intentional exactness—real violent criminals.  (2) Stop wasting tax dollars on more prisons and start spending more wisely, smartly, and more effectively in dealing with the real underlying causes of crime.  And (3) be willing to consider rehabilitation as a viable and workable alternative solution to the drug addiction problem that leads to crime.  Others States have done this and so can/must we!  Remember spending exorbitant amounts of money on just locking an addict up for a few years does nothing to solve the problem and most likely only serves to worsen it—at great expense to the taxpayer!

Change can be good and a change in our State’s crime/prison, drug addiction policies would not only be a good thing, but a necessary and smart thing, leading to great savings in the department of corrections, not to mention the positive difference it can make in the lives of many who need help toward rehabilitation, renewal, and transformation compared to simply throwing them away in our prisons, housing, clothing, and feeding them at our expense, and recycling them in and out of prison, ad nauseam.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Our Immigration Woes!

Two camps, opposing sides, each side viewing the other as cruel, insensitive, unyielding, possibly even inhuman and villainous; Once again we are faced with an over simplified polarized view of a complex issue, using simplistic language as in “Illegal immigrants are the bad people, lawbreaking scoundrels, alien invaders,” and we are “law abiding, hard working, taxpaying American citizens, the innocent victims of an alien invasion.”  The truth is, both sides have justifiable fear, anger, and resentment respecting immigration woes.

What is not readily acknowledged is that both sides have actually needed and used each other for decades.  For example, many California farmers regularly want, need, and use migrant farm workers from Mexico during their harvest season.  And other businesses and factories have been more than willing to hire “illegal aliens” so as to cut production costs in order to realize greater profit.  Most illegal immigrants are very hard working, sending much of their hard earned money back to their home towns and villages in South or Central America to sustain the families they left behind.  Many arrive here wishing they never had had to leave their homes and families in the first place.

Yet, ironically, historically the very economic conditions that force Hispanic immigrants to leave their homes for North America can be traced back to U. S. Foreign & Economic Policies in Latin America.  It’s possible that our immigration woes are a kind of “We reap what we sow” consequence.  But we don’t want to hear this.  I am quite sensitive to the fact that just making this point can be offensive or irritating to those who are tired of the immigration problem and want a quick and immediate solution for it.

Many Americans, especially in the Border States, feel threaten by these immigrants and are on the defensive.  They fear for their jobs and their lifestyle.  Seeing illegal aliens as “law-breakers” and “invaders,” the immigration issue is also seen as a safety and security issue.  On top of this, many Americans fear they are losing a kind of language and culture war to a growing Hispanic presence.  The fear is that the traditional “American” way of life seems to be losing ground to a kind of Latino social, cultural, and economic “take over.”  (And then there’s the race issue; for White Supremacy groups, Hispanics are not “white enough.”)

Immigrants also have their fears.  They fear being exploited, harassed, used and abused here in the U.S.  And many horror stories they tell seem to justify such fears.  Indeed, many swear that they never would have come here at all, had it not been for their desperate situation back home where they came from.  They’d rather not be where they are not welcome.  Few of us would.  But they also receive a double message from US.  In good times, Americans welcome their cheap labor as house cleaners and nannies, gardeners, cooks, janitors, sweepers, factory-line workers, and fruit pickers, etc.  At the same time Americans distrust or even dislike the ever growing Hispanic/Latino influence; their Latin beat, their foreign language, their strongly accented broken English, and the way they “hang out” together, gang-like and stick to themselves, for example.  “They are so…, well, different; they’re not like US,” is the uncomfortable feeling, when openly expressed.

Thus, both reactions to the immigration issue, opposing and supportive, are fear driven.  And fear gives way to anger which gives way to hatred which leads to cruel and abusive counter action.  Since we are on the side of the law and power, having established citizenship, it would help us to remember that Immigrants are people too.  Even if they have crossed our borders illegally, it doesn’t make them all villainous scum.  Many have come here out of sheer desperation.  We need not criminalize the needy even as we find ways to protect our boundaries.

Yes of course, there are criminal elements, in and among any large number of people groups; the above statement is not a naĂ¯ve one.  So, it’s not a question as to whether we should or should not secure our borders.  Yes, we should.  It’s a question of how we do it, a means and method question.  And, it’s a question of attitude and demeanor.  Whatever our method, we should avoid dehumanizing them (as the Nazis did to the Jews in seeking to rid themselves of their Jewish population in the 1930’s and 40’s).  We must avoid denigrating their dignity as fellow human beings in the process and not treat them as animals or worse, view them as pesky insects that must be “eliminated.”  This is for our own good as well as theirs.  For, given their plight, if we demean them we demean ourselves as well, as a nation and as a people (which is always a forerunner to a nation’s downfall).

It would be helpful to keep in mind the following principles as we deal with this difficult ongoing issue:

1.  Anger begets anger.  Hatred begets hatred, and so on.  How we speak on this issue is as important as what we say.  Hateful attitudes and/or hate speech is unnecessary and serves no good purpose to resolving the issue.  Painting one side as a pure and innocent victim and the other side as a bad and ugly villain serves only to vilify each side in the eyes of the other, creating two entrenched polarized enemy camps, with little possibility for a win/win solution.

2.  Fears are real and should be appropriately addressed and allayed.  Pooh-poohing real or imagined fears (on either side) only serve to heighten and aggravate those fears all the more.  By ignoring the real fears that each side has, it becomes less and less possible for either side to really “hear” what the other side needs and wants, or is willing to negotiate, in order to find a workable solution to the problem.

3.  Finally, if one believes in God, our very faith tells us that we must treat all human beings with dignity and respect.  But even if one does not believe in God, one is obliged to abide by humane principles of justice and goodness for all.  All human beings deserve to be treated with respect as to their welfare and dignity simply because they are our fellow human beings.