Humanizing Criminals

Thursday, 23 February, 2017 - 10:10 pm

Regular readers of these weekly thoughts are aware that I have some experience with prison chaplaincy. Over the past 18 years I have seen federal, state and parish prisons on the inside, including the infamous state penitentiary at Angola. Thankfully, the conditions and treatment of prisoners in this country are nothing like those under Hitler, Stalin, Mao or Pol Pot. After all, we live in a nation of laws and human rights. That being said, there is much room for improvement, both regarding prison life as well as sentencing reform.

I have encountered many prison officials and officers that have deep respect for the dignity and humanity of the inmates. I have also seen many who seem to view them as subhuman. This is a dangerous slippery slope to which can be traced much of the injustice in the prison and justice system. A criminal, despite the crime that he committed, and it may very well be a real crime against another or many other humans, is still a person, who is entitled to human dignity. This does not diminish the negativity of the criminal act or its impact on the victim. One can be wrong and liable for punishment while still retaining the right to human dignity.

I would like to cite a proof from this week’s Torah portion. When discussing the penalty for theft, the Torah says that a thief who is caught must make restitution at double the amount of what he stole. If the theft is of an ox or sheep, which he then slaughtered or sold, the thief must pay four times the value of the sheep and five times the value of the ox. Why the difference between an ox and a sheep? Rashi brings two opinions. (I cite them in reverse order to make the point.) Rabbi Meir says, that because the ox can work, the loss to owner is greater than that of the sheep, which does not work. Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai says, that G-d is considerate of human dignity. While the ox walks on its own, the sheep must be carried by the thief over his shoulder. Therefore the payment is reduced because of the indignity suffered by the thief.

I can hear the indignation, “Poor little thief had to carry the sheep on his shoulder in order to steal and we should give a reduction in his punishment because of that?” Yet this is precisely what the Torah says. Every human being has dignity that is honored by his Creator. Even a criminal, who has stooped so low as to violate someone’s property or even life, is still entitled to basic human dignity.

As for those “members of the tribe” in prison, thanks to organizations like the Aleph Institute, who have advocated for Jewish prisoners for many years, much progress has been made in restoring some of that dignity to their lives and their religious rights as Jews in prison. We still have a long way to go in changing the attitudes and practices of our justice and prison systems as it relates to sentencing and incarceration of all prisoners regardless of who they are. A good start would be to recall that every human being, even a criminal, is afforded this basic human dignity by G-d, of which we must always be aware and respect.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin


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