Basic human rights, what does that really mean in our culture today? One would hope that all people in our society would be treated fairly and equally under the law. Unfortunately, power tends to be used abusively in all quarters of our society.
Law enforcement, at times, does not treat those in custody with respect and human dignity. If someone breaks the law, it does not give law enforcement officials the right to treat people disrespectfully and inhumanely. If someone is down on their luck, it does not give people in human services the right to demean people and pass judgment because they are homeless and/or jobless. If someone seeks the support of the clergy and calls a religious establishment, it does not give the clergy or a secretary the right to treat the inquiring person disrespectfully.
Unfortunately, people seem to be mistreated in every arena. Some will justify mistreatment because of how the person in question acts. It seems to me that a person s behavior matters little. If you are a person in power, you are obligated to respond to that person s human need or circumstance. If one makes a commitment to serve the larger community in law enforcement, human services, public service or in the capacity of a religious leader, all must be committed to treating all people with dignity and respect, no matter how they present themselves or respond. Public officials should not inflame the social climate with inappropriate comments.
It is deeply troubling to listen to people justify treating the undocumented with disrespect and disdain just because they do not have the appropriate papers. How often do people judge a book by its cover? Someone s battling addiction and has gone into rehab; when he or she returns too often the person is labeled and ostracized. A teenager breaks the law and goes to jail for his crime. He returns home and is shunned by his friends and others in the community. Most do not know why he went to jail, but are quick to judge him. He has a drug problem, stole to support his habit and got caught. He was disowned by his family and had poor legal representation. So, no one was advocating an alternative to incarceration. He wasn t criminal in terms of his lifestyle and could have benefited from an alternative sentence. With no support, he went to jail to serve his sentence.
As a clergy person, it troubles me to hear decent people complain about being treated less than respectfully when they reach out to their religious community in their time of need. It seems to me that it doesn t cost anything to be kind and respectful to people, especially if you ve committed yourself to a life of service.
Too many people confuse respect and dignity with holding people accountable for the choices that they make. One should never compromise holding another accountable for his or her choices. However, holding someone accountable does not suspend one from respecting another and treating them with dignity.
PJ is a man in his early 40s. He was married and has two children. He recently divorced. Like many he is struggling to make ends meet. He is the owner of a small business and owns his own home. His divorce was not pleasant. He exhausted all of his life savings to navigate this horrific course. Throughout the process, his ex-wife accused him of harassment and emotional abuse.
Since getting divorced, he has been arrested several times because his ex-wife called and accused him of threatening her life. Although the local precinct has a bulging file on this woman making all kinds of complaints about her ex, when she calls and accuses him of threatening her, they have no choice but to arrest him and they do.
According to PJ, these allegations emerge every time his ex-wife does not get what she wants. She continuously harasses him about needing more money and wanting to move with the children to Florida. They have joint custody and his small business is located locally.
By court order, he has very clear visitation rights, and the right to speak to the children every night on the phone. According to him, she regularly refuses to answer the phone at the appointed time. He has a record of this, but no one seems interested in enforcing what the court has determined. When he complains law-enforcement basically says that it is his word against hers. However, when she calls and complains, they act immediately on her complaint. If this is correct, there is something wrong with this picture.
Recently, they had another major conflict. She again indicated that she wanted to move the children to Florida. He again objected. According to him, she started to become abusive and threatening and he hung up the phone. A few hours later, the police called and told him to turn himself in at the precinct by 12:30 am. He expressed his frustration; the officer listened but said he had no choice but to turn himself in. This was on a Sunday night. He would not be arraigned until Monday. Again, he would lose a day s work and a day s pay, since he is self-employed.
PJ did as he was directed. He went before his arraignment judge and was treated less than respectfully. He could not afford a lawyer and bail was set at a thousand dollars. Thankfully his parents were able to come up with money. An order of protection was levied against him, which makes it almost impossible for PJ to communicate with his children and ensure his visitation.
Our criminal justice system has literally set this man up for failure. He makes too much money to qualify for legal aid. Most lawyers won t consider representing him, unless he gives the traditional retainer, which is usually thousands of dollars. Money he does not have. His business is on the verge of collapse. His home is already heavily refinanced. He s behind on the mortgage. If he gets reasonable legal representation, he will fall behind on his child support. Every which way he turns, he hits a brick wall.
As of this writing, he is trying to borrow the monies necessary to have his voice heard when he goes back to court. His story is representative of the growing number of men and women being victimized by the criminal justice system. But the real victims in this case are not the adults, but rather their innocent children.