Crime & Criminal Justice: A Personal Reflection

You’ve read that news story. You know, the one about the pedophile being released back into your community, or the one about the horrifying serial killer being sentenced to life in prison. You know the one I’m talking about. 

And you’ve thought about it. Did you want the pedophile to stay behind bars? Did you think that the killer should have been sentenced to death instead?

Maybe these examples are too extreme. What if a thief stole your camera along with all those precious family photos? How would you react? How would you view that person?

Crime impacts all of us in very personal and, sometimes, terrible ways. It intrudes on our individual and collective momentum like a collision on the way to work. It’s unexpected, inconvenient, expensive, traumatic, and—depending on its severity—can have significant and lasting consequences.

Perhaps you’ve adopted beliefs about this topic from your parents, or from popular ideas floating around in your community. Maybe you’ve formed some sophisticated thoughts on the matter by carefully examining various philosophical and Revelatory standards, or you scanned the scientific literature and drew conclusions based on the evidence.

Whatever the case, I think it would be helpful if we all gave it a bit more thought.

There are definitely gaps in our reasoning, errors in our assumptions, and limits to our generalizations. Criminality is impossibly complex and constantly adapting to new realities. Criminal justice, more often than not, is a reactive and piecemeal approach to dealing with deviance in our delicate social order. A process where popular demand becomes crude public policy delivered with a blunt instrument. However, every case is unique, and a one-size-fits-all approach to criminal justice is irrational, unenlightened, and frankly dangerous. Even something as unambiguous as murder becomes muddled if we consider context.

Baha’is must sooner or later enter the discourse on criminal justice if we’re to contribute to an ever-advancing civilization because (it’s time for that famous yet poorly sourced Dostoyevsky quote), “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons,”1 and observing how it treats its lawbreakers.

So how should we treat criminals?

Instead of telling you how to think I’ve decided to present some general ideas, which I’m hoping will spark more questions and further discourse.

Let’s start with the question, are criminals born or raised? The Baha’i Revelation offers truths about human reality that imply a central role for education in our advancement. An essential concept here is that of nobility.

O Son of Spirit!
Noble have I created thee, yet thou hast abased thyself. Rise then unto that for which thou wast created.2

I’ve heard this passage interpreted in different ways. I believe it reveals that humans have inherited a spiritual capacity to become virtuous. Further, this capacity can differ in degree from person to person3. Abdu’l-Baha explains that education plays a central role in transforming our potential into manifest virtue.

For the inner reality of man is a demarcation line between the shadow and the light, a place where the two seas meet…With education it can achieve all excellence; devoid of education it will stay on, at the lowest point of imperfection. Every child is potentially the light of the world—and at the same time its darkness; wherefore must the question of education be accounted as of primary importance.4

How does this insight impact the way we think about criminal justice and the treatment of criminals? Well Abdu’l-Baha offers a very specific answer to this question:

The body politic is engaged day and night in devising penal laws and in providing for ways and means of punishment. It builds prisons, acquires chains and fetters, and ordains places of exile and banishment, of torment and hardship, seeking thereby to reform the criminal, whereas in reality this only brings about the degradation of morals and the subversion of character. The body politic should instead strive night and day, bending every effort to ensure that souls are properly educated, that they progress day by day, that they advance in science and learning, that they acquire praiseworthy virtues and laudable manners, and that they forsake violent behaviour, so that crimes might never occur.5

My next question is how should I respond to criminality and offending behaviour?

I think this question needs to be broken down a little: who does the “I” refer to?  Abdu’l-Baha suggests that the individual and body politic should respond differently:

An individual has no right to seek revenge, but the body politic has the right to punish the criminal. Such punishment is intended to dissuade and deter others from committing similar crimes. It is for the protection of the rights of man and does not constitute revenge, for revenge is that inner gratification that results from returning like for like. This is not permissible, for no one has been given the right to seek revenge. And yet, if criminals were entirely left to their own devices, the order of the world would be disrupted. So while punishment is one of the essential requirements of the body politic, the wronged and aggrieved party has no right to seek revenge. On the contrary, he should show forgiveness and magnanimity, for this is that which befits the human world. The body politic, however, must punish the oppressor, the murderer, and the assailant, to dissuade and deter others from committing similar crimes.6

This is only a starting point in our exploration, but I think it highlights some concepts that need to be addressed if we are to understand crime and criminal justice within the Baha’i framework. Still, questions remain: What is the role of revealed versus civil law in dealing with criminal matters? What roles do the three protagonists (i.e., the individual, the community, and the institutions) play in criminal justice? How do modern criminological theories relate to the Baha’i Revelation? How should Baha’is respond to criminal cases in the popular media? How should Local Spiritual Assemblies deal with criminal matters?

I know. We’ve got a lot to talk about.


 

  1. Honestly, this quote has no source. The Internet says that it’s from House of the Dead, but I can’t find it there. I think it’s made up. []
  2. Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words []
  3. See chapter 57 on The differences in human character of Some Answered Questions []
  4. Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha []
  5. Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions []
  6. Ibid []

About the Author

Emad Talisman is a research and policy analyst for the Office of the Correctional Investigator in Canada. He holds a Master’s degree in Experimental Forensic Psychology from Carleton University. He divides his free time between trying to make sense of his world, and mitigating the negative impacts of amateur parenting on his children.

Visit Author's Website

Discussion 7 Comments

  1. A lot to talk about indeed.

    One small angle is what is an individual supposed to do? I consider meditating on these two quotes illuminating:

    “Recognize your enemies as friends, and consider those who wish you evil as the wishers of good. You must not see evil as evil and then compromise with your opinion, for to treat in a smooth, kindly way one whom you consider evil or an enemy is hypocrisy, and this is not worthy or allowable. You must consider your enemies as your friends, look upon your evil-wishers as your well-wishers and treat them accordingly. Act in such a way that your heart may be free from hatred. Let not your heart be offended with anyone. If some one commits an error and wrong toward you, you must instantly forgive him. Do not complain of others. Refrain from reprimanding them, and if you wish to give admonition or advice, let it be offered in such a way that it will not burden the bearer. Turn all your thoughts toward bringing joy to hearts. Beware! Beware! lest ye offend any heart. Assist the world of humanity as much as possible. Be the source of consolation to every sad one, assist every weak one, be helpful to every indigent one, care for every sick one, be the cause of glorification to every lowly one, and shelter those who are overshadowed by fear.”

    “Strive ye then with all your heart to treat compassionately all humankind—except for those who have some selfish, private motive, or some disease of the soul. Kindness cannot be shown the tyrant, the deceiver, or the thief, because, far from awakening them to the error of their ways, it maketh them to continue in their perversity as before. No matter how much kindliness ye may expend upon the liar, he will but lie the more, for he believeth you to be deceived, while ye understand him but too well, and only remain silent out of your extreme compassion.”

    Another whole arena is how society should engage in maintaining… well that’s an important questioning. One might have said “order” or “safety”… but what should a society seek to uphold for itself. And what it upholds depends on the general and ranges of specific characteristics of personal development. If we were all angelic personalities whatever the diversity we would not need laws at least most of what we call laws. We would know better than to do wrong. But we don’t. We are thoughtless and often injure ourselves and each other. How free should we be to do either of those? If we were angelic and strong our strength would lessen any injury – but then an angel also wouldn’t let us hurt ourselves… unless it is the best way to learn the truth for ourselves. But that lesson my end our lives here and those of others, or irreparably change the lives of others or ourselves.

    1. Steven, thank you for this comment. It’s given me lots to think about, and it also demonstrates how complex this whole topic really is. So many things to consider. I have made note of some of your insights for my next blog post – my sincere gratitude.

  2. I found where the quote is from…
    Fyodor Dostoyevsky > Quotes > Quotable Quote
    “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”
    ― Fyodor Dostoyevsky

    1. Thank you, Gayl! Actually, my search has resulted in the same source. The problem is that I’ve searched through a number of translations of that book, and have yet to uncover the quote. If you have found a particular translation and page number, please let me know!

  3. Very good topic. Please consider that there are thousands upon thousands of innocent members of society behind walls and bars who are utterly terrified to have found themselves there. They are now in a much different society. It is a society that has no regard for such individuals. Imagine your utter horror to be stuck in an enclosed space with true criminals. Criminals that prey upon the weak. Imagine the unspeakable acts of violence, rape, murder and extortion that innocent brothers and sisters must endure, fearing for their own lives 24/7 for years on end. Yes, there are true and diabolical people rightly convicted and behind bars. They have a steady diet of new prey, entering their personal territory and think nothing of using, tormenting, maiming and murdering these fellow brothers and sisters on a daily basis. We know nothing of the countless men and women who are terrified to use the public restrooms, showers, and common spaces of the hell that they have been thrust into. Imagine trying to sleep or find moments of true peace in such places. They call out for help, scream, and experience the most violent rapes and horrifying deaths on a daily basis throughout our country. Some are targeted for daily extortion. Some choke on their own blood after being beaten and stabbed. Some run in a tortuous panic after being lit on fire and jeered at by their murderers. Imagine living in such a hell. This is where the criminal justice system sends our sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins, friends, and work associates. We live in such a wicked society, that would damn people falsely, or at the very least, so extremely. How much do we as followers of God attempt to change the corrupted halls of a penal system more interested in profit, punishment, and power than in the lives of people caught in there deadly webs. What if you were the one, who in the future finds yourself caught in the jaws of such a monstrous and uncaring system of serial punishment? There is a hidden level of living people, just beyond the sight of our comfortable daily life’s, living as walking dead men and women. How many of us truly go into such places to give these men and women unconditional love, hope and reassurance. How many God loving would join in such a noble cause of service and to bring the message of our faith to these tortured, forgotten souls? Imagine the families of such men and women, their finances drained and the hopelessness they feel to be able to bring any sort of meaningful relief to their own family hidden away in the dungeons of the American penal system. There is an immediate need to bring service to such desperate and terrified people. May we start in communal prayer, considering their plight. May God open up inroads in order for true reform of our corrupted penal, and criminal justice systems. May we find the funds to bring charity and services to those languishing in such a deplorable conditions and to their families wherever we may find them.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Daniel. You’ve highlighted one of my greatest concerns with the criminal justice system, i.e., mass incarceration and the detention of low-risk offenders. Did you know that in Canada, over 100,000 offenders are currently being supervised in the community as peaceful, law-abiding citizens? That figure is a whopping 4.7 million in the United States! I think there is a popular perception that all offenders are dangerous, hopeless, amoral, and incapable of betterment. I would challenge this assumption.

      Yes, as you’ve mentioned, there are those few who, as the Master says, are “bloodthirsty wolves: If they were to see no punishment ahead, they would kill others solely for the sake of their own pleasure and diversion.” But they are few.

      I think we need to change our perception of offending and those who offend before any real change can be made to our criminal justice system.

  4. Having been employed for nearly 8 years in Arizona DOC and now retired, I find myself attentive to notions of restorative justice. From the little that I have heard of such efforts it would seem that they involve re-education rather than punishment and this interests me as a Baha’i.

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