Tags: criminal justice

Myth of Monsters in the Criminal Justice System

group of wooden people surround a figure to accuse him
(Andrii Yalanskyi/Dreamstime)

By Monday, 03 August 2020 11:43 AM Current | Bio | Archive

Music has long been revered for its almost supernatural ability to move and transform people. Seeing this, fundamentalist religions have blamed demonic forces at play, business owners have rushed to attach songs to their product, and politicians have woven the medium into their platforms.

What explains this phenomenon? I'd argue connectivity. Entwined in the bars and melodies is the driving force of narrative, and it is this factor that winds itself into hearts and minds like a worm. There's nothing more powerful than feeling truly seen or understood by another person, and that connectivity has the power to bind individuals to artists they've never met and stories they've never lived.

Music isn't the only medium where narrative flexes its ability. We see it in every entertainment genre — television, movies, podcasts, radio, sports, books and politics.

Like most kinds of power, storytelling can be used for good or for evil. Stories can invoke deep empathy and provide knowledge, or they can stir up derision and mislead. Not all narrators are reliable, stories can look different based on the viewpoint of who's telling them, and the actors we identify with in them shape our sympathies. It's prudent to be aware of all these things as a consumer, as a voter, and as a human being.

When it comes to politics and pop culture, the stories emanating from our justice system have made fodder for political ads, campaign speeches, legislative testimony, courtrooms, and, more recently, true crime "entertainment" productions.

For many years, the stories told about those inside and around our system were monolithic, oversimplified, and hyperbolic. Perpetrators and victims always cut neat, black-and-white dichotomies. Those who committed violence were one-dimensional, motivated purely by an evil they were born with, and stagnant in their role as a "monster." Their victims were cast as impossibly blameless beings, their families ruled by self-righteous anger, and the numerous actors in the legal community — police, prosecutors, judges — the tireless seekers of justice.

These stories had a powerful effect on the American public, causing them to support inhumane, expensive and ineffective responses and discard victims of violence who had any kind of a past.

If you were writing a children's book, perhaps you would write it in this way — dumbing down the material and stomping out the nuance to make the plot easier to digest. But in actuality, this simplistic way of explaining violence has led to most Americans misunderstanding the problem entirely. And when you misdiagnose the root of the problem, you will certainly prescribe the wrong solutions.

So let's go back to the drawing board and paint a more authentic portrait of the people in our system who have committed harm. If you were to actually spend some time on our death rows or in the nation's prisons, you would not find the monsters Hollywood has sold you over the years. Rather you would typically find individuals who have played multiple roles in the system throughout their lives — often first victims or witnesses of violence themselves, at times family members of victims, and then perpetrators. Those who commit violence are as complicated as the victims of it; at various times in their lives they have experienced and been responsible for goodness, which is overshadowed by the bad.

Violence is perhaps the most acute and consequential driver of trauma — and trauma fundamentally changes reactions — making it a cyclical problem. Not everyone who experiences severe trauma becomes a fundamental part of the cycle of violence, and the vast majority of people do not become violent overnight, nor are they fated to never recover from it.

Violence instead operates like an illness, one that can be treated or exacerbated. When a person receives the treatment and healing for the trauma that might drive violence early on, violence can be circumvented, and the cycle can be broken. Our justice system is focused almost exclusively on punishment, which creates more trauma, ignores the restoration needed in the wake of harm and undermines any efforts for deterrence.

Those who cause harm aren't the only ones being mischaracterized. Spend some time working around victims' family members and you will hear over and over the numerous ways they are being failed by our system. Contrary to popular opinion, most aren't looking for revenge. Instead, they're seeking resources to rebuild their lives: restitution, a path toward reconciliation, and a form of justice that truly builds restoration. You'll be astounded by the depths of their concern for those who have wronged them, and their desire for healing.

Too often, when we hear stories of violence, we put ourselves in the shoes of those who look like us or who have similar backgrounds. We make assumptions about our motivations and desires, and we miss important angles to the story.

Imagine if our society viewed those impacted by crime as the full humans and children of God that they are, instead of as the worst act they've ever committed or the sum of what harm has been done to them. Working around this population has shown me that transformation is possible, that no person is too far gone, and that those who've done wrong have the potential to become those who right wrongs. I've seen victims get their power back through forgiveness. I've seen the sick be healed. These are the stories I have to tell, and I hope you're listening.

Hannah Cox is the National Manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. Hannah was previously Director of Outreach for the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market think tank. Prior to that, she was Director of Development for the Tennessee Firearms Association and a policy advocate for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Read Hannah Cox's Reports — More Here.

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Those who commit violence are as complicated as the victims of it; at various times in their lives they have experienced and been responsible for goodness, which is overshadowed by the bad.
criminal justice
Monday, 03 August 2020 11:43 AM
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