The Real 'Debt to Society'

Posted by: Richenda at Friday June 22, 2007 in

I woke this morning with a really strong sentiment swimming in my mind. An impression from my dreams. The feeling was very strong.

The gist was practical. The dream told me that the real way that criminals who are parents can pay their debt to society is to raise their children well.

This makes so much sense if you think about it. The child of a criminal who is essentially abandoned and made ‘orphan’ by their parents (whose behavior led to their incarceration) and the state (who incarcerated them) suffers a great deal. Parental ties, even bad ones, make a deep and lasting impact on the child’s psyche. It is the starting place of that child’s development, and is the place from which that child can either stagnate in hurt and injustice, or grow and develop well.

A child raised with love and care will be a much, much better citizen than one who is made abandoned by a system that insists on incarceration as a remedy for all social evils. The parent’s effort in raising a healthy, loved child is far, far more valuable to society than is their punishment through incarceration.

Instead of simply incarcerating parents, then, there should be a kind of parent re-hab. Those who are lousy parents were often (no surprise here) the children of lousy parents. Let’s not make more criminals by allowing this cycle to continue unabated.

Rehab is surprisingly effective when done well. The parent finds themselves in a caring but firm environment where they will be asked to deal with their emotional issues (however hard that may be) and learn the brass tacks of parenting—things they should have learned from their own parents, but didn’t. Or things that just went wrong in their lives that they could not remedy for themselves.

The child, too, participates in this process, though in a much gentler way with an emphasis on creating a very safe environment for them. There are already programs in place that do this in a wide variety of places. Homes for teen mothers, for example, help mom and baby bond in a healthy way that gives that child the very best start in the world and helps mom be a good parent the rest of her life. Women’s prisons also sometimes run programs like this.

In England, there is a movement away from incarcerating women. The argument is a good one—women are not the main movers in committing crimes, they are accomplices to their husbands and boyfriends or are dragged into an unhealthy relationship and act out. There is little to be gained from incarcerating them that cannot better be addressed by removing them from their unhealthy environment and counseling them regarding healthy relationships.

These women are also moms. By committing a crime, these women perpetrate a triple evil: against their society, against their children, and against their society again when that child cannot actuate as a citizen, but instead becomes a recluse, or involved in negative or even criminal behaviors.

This is not just about moms, it is also about dads. Children need both parents—their fathers, too! Men need to be given the opportunity to atonement for themselves, their children, and their society in a positive way.

Here in the states, men are incarcerated at alarmingly high, and by many accounts racially driven, rates. What a horrible thing this is. Cycling and cycling. Can we get these parents out of prison and into their children’s lives in a meaningful way? If we are really talking about debt to society, isn’t this the greatest debt to be paid and with the greatest potential benefits? We should be pulling out all the stops to address how to heal the one generation for the sake of the next. Every one of us in our society benefits when healthy kids become healthy adults.

Of course there are crimes for which people must be removed from society for the benefit of society. And it can be a pickle figuring out exactly who can be rehabilitated and who cannot be. But I think the majority of people need intervention, not incarceration. Parent rehab, where that person’s relationship to their own parents, to their children, and to themselves—think of what we could gain by reclaiming our citizens for the greatest good of all of us.

That was my dream, anyway. A deep impression that filled my body and mind as I awoke. Something important that needed to be said. And so, I have said it. Can we do it? Can we put aside our bitterness, our desire to punish, our fear, our need for revenge—and commit to healing for the sake of all our kids?

I believe, in the better angels of our nature, that we can.

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