Should Consequences Be Punitive Or Rehabilitative?

Recently a twenty-year-old male stood before a criminal court judge in Central Islip awaiting sentencing. The young man was contrite and deeply remorseful. It had been two years since he fled the scene of a ...

Print Email

Recently a twenty-year-old male stood before a criminal court judge in Central Islip awaiting sentencing. The young man was contrite and deeply remorseful. It had been two years since he fled the scene of a car accident where an older woman was killed.

His involvement in that accident has forever changed the fabric of this family's life. Some family members believe that he has destroyed their family forever.

Unlike some of his contemporaries who have also been in trouble with the law and have fled or tried to get over on the system, this young man has elected to take responsibility for what he has done.

His own life was not without horror. His father died of a drug overdose while this young man was still in high school. He and his Dad were close. His Dad coached him in baseball and football. They were the best of friends. His Dad's death left a hole in this young man's heart and some deep bitterness and resentment. Thus PJ coped with his loss and sense of abandonment by acting wild.

The night of the fatal accident changed this young man's life forever as well. At eighteen, he was forced to grow up. He could have run and tried to beat the system. However, once his fear subsided and he was thinking more rationally, he elected to take responsibility for his actions on that fatal night.

Immediately after he was charged, PJ sought out counseling and structure for his life. He could no longer run. Since facing the fact that his actions caused the death of a person who was loved by others, there is not a day that goes by that he does not wrestle with the hurt he has inflicted on another family. He has on-going nightmares that even intensive counseling have not relieved.

However, he gets up every day and knows that he must make amends, even if the woman's family chooses not to accept his amends. For two years, this broken young man has been trying to grow and become a better person.

At his sentencing, the judge sternly rebuked this young man and imposed thirty days in county jail and five years probation, even though it was initially agreed that this young man would just have intensive probation for five years.

One cannot put a length of time as genuine reparation for the senseless taking of another life. What was not conveyed at this young man's sentencing was that as a condition of his probation, he has agreed to live in a residential setting for a minimum of three years with the maximum of five years. It is not Riverhead, but in some ways it is self-imposed prison without bars. It is strict and supervised twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. The program that PJ is in is even more intensive and restricted.

It will not be easy for him. He is not getting off scot-free with a thirty-day sentence and a minimal fine. His confinement will not bring the beloved mother and grandmother back to life. But maybe her death was not in vain. Hopefully, this young man will be healed, transformed and empowered to become a productive, contributing member of our society.

The question to be raised, especially with teenagers who have committed crimes, even serious, violent ones, is should the consequences be punitive and punishing or should they be rehabilitative and life giving?

From a coldly materialistic perspective, it would be more cost effective to empower a teenager to wholeness and positive decision-making rather than reinforcing their negative decision-making. Most importantly, all young people need to know that for every choice they make there is a consequence. They must be held accountable.

Needless to say, I would support creative alternatives to most incarcerations. Rarely does a person leave prison better. If one did, the recidivism rate would not be so high.

Don't misunderstand, I am not urging for more country club prisons with all the amenities of home, but rather environments that are therapeutic, academic and life-giving.

I have worked with many teenagers over the years who were given creative, alternatives to jail. Most at the midpoint of their sentence have said that on many levels living in the alternative setting was worse than prison.

Why? Because twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, they were forced to deal with the attitudes and behaviors that led them into the criminal system in the first place. They are not allowed to hide, run or avoid their issues. Every inappropriate response, gesture or attitude is confronted and dealt with immediately.

One's time in each phase is extended for non-compliance. In addition, the revocation of the few privileges one has can also be a consequence.

Jail for the most part is a wasteland of human potential. It is a very expensive, ineffective warehouse for human misery.

Living conditions are oftentimes not conducive for any kind of growth and change in behavior. Those corrective facilities that offer some mental health and support services are more often than not understaffed and overtaxed.

Should we continue to mix the prison population? Would it not better serve the needs of society to treat non-violent, drug related criminals in one way and hard core, violent felons in another? I still think rehabilitation is ultimately more cost effective than warehousing people for years on end.

Our newly elected sheriff and his under sheriff have an impossible job. They have inherited a human disaster that is a time bomb ready to explode. However, they are trying to be creative with poor finances and terrible working conditions.

We need to urge our criminal court judges along with our new district attorney to be creative, to try well researched and cost effective alternatives to incarceration. My limited firsthand experience has demonstrated that miracles do happen.