Sunday, June 16, 2013

Criminal Justice, Redemption, and Empathy

Here’s a story about criminal justice, redemption, and empathy. The title is, “In America, Criminal Justice System Needs Redemption More Than the Prisoners.”

It tells the story of a prosecutor who slowly began seeing how his Christian worldview conflicted with how he was treating the least among us by traveling down the traditional criminal justice path of mass incarceration in the name of justice. Really, it’s a story about empathy, because anyone who can truly empathize with a criminal defendant cannot help but see the person who is capable of a better life, and who should be forgiven and extended a community’s helping hand at living in society. This prosecutor came to a sort of epiphany when he actually entered into a prison and started teaching college classes to inmates. According to the prosecutor, Preston Shipp, interacting with these inmates caused him some degree of cognitive dissonance:

When the only information you receive about a person is the worst thing they’ve ever done, it’s very easy to regard them as less human. How can I reconcile the job I was asked to do as a prosecutor with my faith in Jesus, who came proclaiming release for prisoners?

How indeed? In this case, he couldn’t, and so he quit his job as prosecutor and now advocates for criminal justice reform. The article talks about a documentary you can watch describing his redemptive transformation.

So what does this have to do with bail? Well, apart from the idea that judges and lawyers would benefit from the occasional trip inside the jail or prison they send people to, I have seen a great lack of empathy in the criminal justice system for pretrial defendants. This lack of empathy is likely expected. At a typical bail hearing, there is often only a charge and the police affidavit along with a criminal history to guide everyone. These documents tend overwhelmingly to cast the defendants as bad people who did bad things. Still, these people are human, just like you and me, and if we saw even a little bit of ourselves in them, we might not be so quick to lock them up or otherwise make their lives miserable before their trials.  

Don’t get me wrong. I care immensely about victims of crime. On more than one occasion I’ve been the victim of a crime, and I have close relatives who have been victims of violent crimes. But I think that empathy allows us to care about both victims and the people who stand accused.   

I’ll quit preaching now, but I have to say that I don’t think I would even need to be working at bail reform if everyone showed just a little more empathy.