Second Chances

22Mar09

Reposted from my LiveJournal, in response to today’s writer’s block question: “Do you think people deserve second chances?”

It depends on what you mean by “second chances.”

I am committed to the notion that we, as a collective human society, have no business throwing out another human being for what they have done (or, in the case of the poor, failed to do). No matter what heinous act a particular human being happens to perpetuate on another human being or on society as a whole, we have an obligation to recognize the actor’s basic humanity. When we fail in this obligation, we become the very scum we seek to “punish.” We abrogate our own humanity, and we set back any progress we may have made as sentient beings over the course of the past x-thousand years.

On the other hand, I am committed to the notion that actions have consequences, and that we as a society must ensure that people who act to the detriment of society (“criminals”) experience the consequences of that action. In other words, yes, murderers should absolutely be in prison – that is not only the consequence of their behavior (loss of liberty), but in many cases necessary to protect the rest of society (letting murderers run around free is simply saying “oh well, if you got in the murderer’s way your life must not be worth much, sucker”).

Our criminal justice system, then, has to strike a balance between ensuring that those who harm societal interests experience consequences sufficient to deter and/or rehabilitate them, and treating them as less-than. This is why I’m strongly committed to prisoners’ rights. There is no moral or social right to throw people away.

So yes, we can lock up murderers and rapists and what have you. But we still have an obligation to ensure their quarters are safe and sanitary and to give them the opportunity to better themselves while in confinement – decent prison libraries, for instance, or GED courses. Likewise, we can yank AIG’s bonuses and let the whole thing fall off a cliff, but if that causes any of its employees to become destitute, we have a moral obligation to ensure they have food, housing, and healthcare. (It does not have to be food or housing at the level at which they may have become accustomed. It just has to be safe and sanitary.)

The problem with punishment, as opposed to consequence-and-rehabilitation, is that the receiver remembers the punishment and forgets the crime. It breeds vengeance, which is exactly not the frame of mind we want a parolee in. Think about it – do you want a guy who just did a year for beating up his wife to get out thinking “y’know, that was fucking stupid. I think I’ll go be a mechanic,” or “you assholes treated me like shit in that hellhole for twelve whole months. I’m paying you back and I don’t fucking care who dies”?

(Note I said “act to the detriment of society.” Insofar as you act to the detriment of only yourself, I don’t think that should be a crime. Nature is not just, but She is exact. If you want to fill yourself with heroin, physics and biology are going to pay you back far better than prison ever could. If you fill yourself with heroin and then drive a car, however, that should be actionable, because you’re putting the lives of other drivers and pedestrians on the line as well as your own. Ditto if you start mugging people or embezzling to pay for your heroin habit. And so forth.)

(The poor, btw, are a special case, because we throw away the poor for having done nothing except be poor at us. We blame it on the moral failings of the poor individuals so we can maintain a sense of superiority, not because being poor actually is or evidences any kind of moral failing or intent to cause social damage. Society is therefore collectively to blame for our holier-than-thou attitude to the extent it exacerbates poorness – except the poor themselves, who have no power in this scenario to change it. As I keep saying, nothing gives us, individually or collectively, the right to throw another human being away. So I guess what I’m saying is that the poor don’t need a second chance, they just need the rest of us to quit denying them their first chance.)

To make a long story very, very short, then:

Yes, I think everyone deserves a second chance. But they deserve a second chance only within the context of the consequences of their first.

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