The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, with 2.2 million people behind bars. We have five percent of the global population but 25 percent of its prisoners. Put another way: no country, not even China (a totalitarian regime with four times our population), surpasses us. We imprison people at almost the same rate as the notorious GULAG system of the former Soviet Union. (Sorry, I just had to put that in bold.) And it’s not only because we send non-violent offenders to prison but because we give prisoners disproportionately long sentences.
This seems badly amiss to me, especially where young offenders are concerned. But what do we do with the bad kids? Rehabilitate them? Show compassion? I think our answer depends, in part, on how we assign blame. If we draw a sharp line between “perpetrators” and “victims,” the answer is easy: lock them up. But if we think that we – all of us – play a role in an individual perpetrator’s behavior, it’s much harder to view his crime and punishment in isolation.
I’ve been wrestling with how to make sense of the recent trial of Dharun Ravi, who was convicted of a hate crime for setting up a webcam to spy on his roommate in a sexual situation. The case had special urgency because the student, Tyler Clementi, a gifted violinist who had recently told his parents he was gay, jumped to his death off the George Washington bridge after becoming aware that his privacy had been violated. To anyone with a pulse, Mr. Ravi’s actions were chilling and cruel. But framed in a different way, they also seemed youthful, insensitive, and foolish.
Although many applauded the verdict as recognition that bias crimes, “do not require physical weapons,” and noted the potential impact on LGBTQ students, who are disproportionately affected by bullying and harassment, others felt a little queasy at the prospect of Mr. Ravi’s possible ten-year sentence or deportation to India, the country of his birth. The reaction from some gay rights advocates was relatively muted; and Dan Savage called the verdict a political witch hunt, as did Andrew Sullivan. The ambivalent responses seemed to come from an unease about how we apportion punishment where young adults are concerned, and not just for whether it is possible to measure bias.
Mr. Clementi’s father understood this very well when, in an act of unusual grace, he released a statement after the trial saying that, “the criminal law is only one way of addressing these problems (but) there are other ways that are better, particularly when it comes to changing the values and behavior of young people.”
As life expectancies have increased and adult roles demand higher levels of education and training, the developmental stage of ‘adolescence’ has changed, too. At the same time, advances in neuro-biology, social network science, and genetics have all shed more light on the human condition, leading us to the inescapable conclusion that young adults are not yet fully grown; are profoundly influenced by peer and cultural forces; and have a long journey to attain the label of ‘adulthood’ that young people acquired more easily in previous generations.
So how do we change the values and behavior of young people? It’s far easier to throw the book at an individual criminal than to do the tough communal work of setting young people on a moral path. Yet something in our criminal justice system doesn’t seem to be working.
In our ruggedly individualistic society, it’s easy to forget that our collective responsibility to our future “posterity,” as the founding fathers called it, lies in educating, not merely punishing, wrongdoers. People on both sides of the political aisle have found reasons to shirk this duty. Conservatives often argue that personal responsibility starts and ends at home. Liberals, on the other hand, have embraced cultural relativism to such an extent that they are reluctant to acknowledge socially accepted moral absolutes, to guide young people. These attitudes leave millions of youth at risk and millions of taxpaying citizens holding the bag.
There are alternatives. One promising approach is called Communities for Restorative Justice. Founded by Howard Zehr, but reflecting ancient norms practiced long before legal systems were enshrined, the process aims to respond to crime “in ways that heal, hold accountable, and put right.” Restorative justice doesn’t let criminals off the hook; on the contrary, it recognizes that crime is a violation of people and relationships and it engages wrongdoers in the process of understanding their actions and making amends.
But an even better solution involves collective moral leadership before a crime happens. We need to teach our nation’s youth, through more than threats and empty slogans, that respect and compassion are non-negotiable. Mr. Clementi Sr. urged young people to remember, when encountering people they don’t like, that, “just because you don’t like them, does not mean you have to work against them.”
The grown-ups committed to harsh punishment could learn this lesson, too.