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Behind tall concrete walls and high voltage electric wire fences hides a secret that few lawmakers want to talk about for fear of public outcry. While the average voter is kept in the dark, America is fast becoming a penal colony. The statistics are so staggering, and the damage done so great, that society seems bent on turning a blind eye rather than consider new policy, or, worse, admit any poor judgment.
Consider. Fact: One out of every 100 adults in America will be incarcerated this year.
Fact: The incarceration rate in our country has increased 700 percent since 1970, when new laws created hundreds of thousands of new criminals.
Fact: Although the United States consists of only 5 percent of the world population, it now is host to roughly 25 percent of the world’s entire prison population.
Fact: The incarceration rate in this land is five times higher per capita than our neighbor to the north, and seven times higher than any European country. The highest in the world, by a significant margin.
You have to ask yourself, why does the Unites States put and keep so many of its citizens behind bars? Are Americans more morally bankrupt than the citizens of Holland or France and therefore deserving of more punishment? Are there more murders, rapes and destructive behavior per capita in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world?
The answer is no. Not yet.
There are many factors that contribute to the explosion of our prison colonies but, at the risk of over simplification, let me suggest that they all boil down to one observation: We hate our prisoners. We throw them behind bars and make sure they understand just how unloved they are. We are bent on punishment, not rehabilitation. Lock them up and throw away the key. Do the crime, do the time. Three strikes and you’re out. Slip up once and we will make your life so miserable that you learn to hate yourself. And they do learn, fairly quickly.
As a reader, you might think it just. An eye for an eye. The problem is, 40 years of history has now proven that current policy simply isn’t working. In fact, it’s backfiring. Our society is becoming more dangerous, not less.
Fact: Violent crime increased 18 percent over the prior year in 2011.
Take a puppy and throw it in the pen with snarling bulldogs and it will learn how to bite — plain and simple. Take an 18-year-old kid busted for pot and put him in an overcrowded cage with hard-timers and he is likely to harden. It’s no wonder 70 percent go back, typically for more serious offenses than smoking a joint. Our prisons have become monster factories.
Our system of justice might feel fair, but it doesn’t change hearts. Unless you change the hearts of those who have strayed from society’s prescribed path, they will only continue to stray.
Think of those behind bars as you might a teenager under restriction. All experienced parents know that punishment levied without a greater helping of comfort and love only creates resentment and ultimately even greater rebellion in the hearts of our sons and daughters. A home without copious portions of love to balance out guidance is just another monster factory.
Those who commit crimes are usually members of society who have been mistreated. They’ve often been shown little love. They turn to crime and they do the time — in monster factories.
Business is very good for those factories; it’s a thriving industry. But our penal system isn’t helping the wayward find their way into the light. It’s too dark in the hole.
At the risk of sounding absurd, let me suggest a change of heart, not among prisoners, but among we who are responsible for their rehabilitation. Love, not hate, heals. Not love with a whip or punishment out for revenge. Rather the kind of love that heals hearts, beginning with our own.
Consider the teachings of Jesus: You have heard it said, an eye for an eye, but I say do no harm to an evil man, and, Love your enemies and do good to those who hurt you. Jesus spoke specifically of prisoners alongside those who are thirsty and hungry, and had the audacity to insist that we treat them as if they were Him. It’s strange that those in our nation who wave Jesus banners lead the charge for the harshest treatment of prisoners.
It’s easy to look at the Middle East and see that an “eye for an eye only leaves the whole world blind,” as Gandhi pointed out. It’s much more difficult to see that we are no different, perhaps because we are already blind ourselves. But if we open our eyes, we will see that the sages of old were right: Only love heals. Until we embrace this truth, we ourselves are monsters.
Ted Dekker is a New York Times bestselling author of more than 20 novels. His new thriller, “The Sanctuary,” explores crime and punishment in America.