Rehabilitation for the Wrong?

Perhaps one of the most prevalent thoughts in American society is that criminals deserve what they get. There is this longstanding debate over whether or not the death penalty should still be applied to criminals. And seeing as how many states still practice this, it is obvious which side is winning this argument. Now I’m not asking here whether punishment fits the crime, per se. Sentencing laws are an entire issue on their own. What I would like to discuss is the social view on criminals.

Why do we put people in jail? Is it meant to be for punishment, or for rehabilitation. Which one works best to ensure that no future crimes are committed? I’m sure many people would love to be optimistic and say rehabilitation. But rehabilitation is not what goes on in prisons.  For some prisoners, it feels like they are put through a “deprivation of liberty” (Ginnekin, Esther, Hayes, 2017). They feel like their whole lives are restricted, their freedom, their choice, their futures. Especially if they get out of prison, then the next big step is reforming their life by getting a job and starting over. But they can’t exactly just go about doing that, can they. There’s too much stigma around being a former convict. “How is my criminal record… being put behind me, if every time I have to apply for a job, I have to disclose it, considering that my actual criminal record has no bearing on the actual job that I’m actually applying for” (Ginnekin, Esther, Hayes, 2017).

In comparison to the treatment that they receive while they are finally released, the treatment that they have to endure while inside prison is astoundingly cruel. However society doesn’t even bat an eyelash at this because the social view of this is that the criminals deserve whatever punishment comes to them. Which is an understandable view for people who may have lost loved ones and such, but for society as a whole to not care about treatment of criminals, it is simply astounding.

Perhaps I am overstepping my bounds, but this topic is rather personal to me as my father was sent to prison a few years back on charges of second degree murder of a business associate of his. Of course such a crime is unforgivable and the man at fault certainly deserves the time he has to serve, but that doesn’t mean he should be treated like an animal once inside the prison system.

Let me give an example of what I am talking about on a social level. I would like to affect social change in the sense that we need to stop dehumanizing criminals. When my father was being put on trial, there was a lot of media buzz surrounding it. But they all spun the same story. That he was just another immigrant who came to this country to cause gun violence and take away the lives of hard working Americans. Never mind the fact that my father came here as a refugee after having his village bombed by Americans during the Vietnam War, personally watching his mother stabbed to death by soldiers, recovering enough to come to this country as a teenager, perfecting the language enough to get a bachelors in English, learning enough to get a masters in Buddhist studies, spending years as a monk, raising a family of his own out of poverty. No. None of that mattered. All that mattered was that he was a criminal. He was a bad guy who deserved to be punished. Anyone who saw the news would see an image of a monster painted before them. But anyone who knew him would say “Bruce? The Buddhist monk?”

Affecting social change pertaining to opinion on such a large scale would be rather hard. But like we saw with Rescue, if we aim to conduct research in such a manner as to target specific demographics, disseminate information in a widespread and easily consumable manner, then perhaps public opinions on criminals can change.


van Ginneken, Esther F. J. C., & Hayes, D. (2017). ‘just’ punishment? offenders’ views on the meaning and severity of punishment. Criminology & Criminal Justice: An International Journal, 17(1), 62-78. doi:

1 comment

  1. Alan Christopher Lord

    This is a very interesting and controversial topic, as it talks about one of the country’s black eyes; the criminal justice system. I think you make some very valid points regarding how society as a whole generally views criminals. It feels like there is an assumption that all criminals are bad or evil people, and they choose to do wrong because they want to. We typically lump all criminals together, regardless of the severity of the crime, and assume whatever they were accused of doing they did. Then, we make the fundamental attribution error of assuming these actions are representative of that individual’s personal characteristics, instead of rationalizing the actions are based on their current situation.

    We tend to generalize and stereotype a lot in this country, and criminal are not immune to this fact. But, in doing so, many times we devalue individual’s, making it easier to tolerate or ignore mistreatment of them. This is why many people turn their attention away from the treatment of criminals. We assume they have made their choices, and now must face the consequences, regardless of how egregious they may be. We don’t’ in many cases, take into account their situation. Everyone doesn’t have access to the same resources or opportunities, but we all have the drive to survive. Many times, doing what’s necessary to survive may mean doing things that are looked down upon. While some people sell drugs to live lavish, others are trying to keep food on their tables. While some people steal because they can, others steal because they need and can’t afford. People’s situations dictate their actions in many regards, and many times, criminals, or individuals who commit crimes, are a product of their environment.

    I think perspective goes a long way in how people view things, and I think if we could change the perspective people have on criminals, then change in how they are treated can come about. This will prove to be difficult, however, as people’s perspectives come from their background and experiences. Since those are unique to each individual and to some extent each group of individuals, it will be difficult to bring about change. I grew up in a pretty good community, with both my parents being doctors. For the most part, I have been afforded many opportunities, and have had access to many resources, some of my friends have not. It wasn’t until I became immersed in a different environment, and got to know people from that environment, that I was able to better understand some of their actions. Now, I want to make it clear, that understanding these actions, doesn’t mean I agree with them, however, understanding them allows me to see where the individual was coming from and to understand just because they committed a crime, doesn’t mean they should be devalued as a human being. I believe when society can begin to see things from a perspective other than their own, they will begin to value the lives of all people, even the ones who were driven to make mistakes by their less than ideal living situations.

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