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Courts and Jails

July 25, 2016

This morning I went to court to support two people I care about. Over the years I’ve been in various court buildings and courtrooms, as well as many jails and prisons. It’s not exciting. It’s not like television dramas. It’s just sad. I look around and see depression and despair on the faces of those sitting in the waiting areas; broken families and wounded lives.

A lawyer in one of my congregations once made the comment: “Law courts are indispensable when you need them, but you should avoid them whenever possible.” I think his point was that law courts are a kind of necessary evil. They do not usually bring healing; maybe not even justice. They are an adversarial system of winners and losers, and the losers outnumber the winners. They offer a sort of last ditch rough justice full of tangles and frustrations with little satisfying resolution for everyone involved. By all means, avoid going to court.

For those contemplating doing something immoral and illegal–stop. Don’t do it. Aside from the harm you are doing to your psyche and to to your victim and community, you are setting up your family and yourself for many years of potential shame and pain and frustration–whether you get jail time or not.

For those who want to take someone to court, pause for a moment. Is it necessary? Have you exhausted all possibilities of negotiation, communication, understanding, and resolution?

I’m not saying never go to court. I’m not saying never send a person to prison. Illegal activity needs to be confronted. Serial predators and offenders, and those who act violently, need to be behind bars. But we’re sending too many people to court, and too many to prison. For the nonviolent there should be restorative justice programs that have a much greater potential for bringing satisfaction and restitution to the victims and responsible behavior for the offenders. Let’s stop needlessly breaking up families. We can also get into the habit of simply talking with those who have offended us. De-escalate the conflict. Learn how to engage one another in constructive ways.

There is one exception to avoiding court I should mention: getting arrested and going to court (and possibly jail) for a moral cause. It is honorable to publicly and nonviolently violate an unjust law and willingly face the consequences. This was a cornerstone of the Civil Rights movement and a major strategy used by Gandhi to free India. Whether the targeted law is actually unjust is decided, in the long run, by the public. But someone has to break it in order to raise the question.

But most of the people I have visited in court or jail weren’t there for a moral cause. Often it is behavior induced by chemical addiction or mental illness. Sometimes it is a character flaw. A few times it has been a narcissistic personality with a malformed conscience. We need to help people form good habits and conscience while they are still young. We need to nurture them within wholesome communities of love and appropriate boundaries. We need to stop using entertainment that lacks a moral center. And we need to stop being self-righteous. Given the wrong circumstances, we could all be the person facing the judge.

[Next post will be Monday, August 8, 2016.]



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