Bad human behavior is irrational. Even highly once;ontrived crimes like murder or Madoff-inspired systematic fraud. We like to think that crime is rational so we can continue to think that well-thought out strategies will combat it, but crime is emotional in its soul. Psychiatrist Thomas P. Malone said that he could sum up every abnormal human behavior: it’s someone screaming: “For God’s sake, someone love me!”
We impose logic and numbers all over lawbreaking as if crime has some calculus hidden within it. We speak of crime in financial terms as is people are as predictable as market forces. We use phrases like “paying one’s debt to society” and “reparation” and “getting one’s due.” We rely on the mathematical certainty of talion – one eye equals one eye and one tooth exchanges for one tooth; correction is just reconciliation of existential accounts. But the solution to society’s problem of crime appears on no ledger; it’s no debit that can be counterbalanced with a policy-driven credit.
An experiment by graduate students at Harvard and MIT called GiveDirectly gives cash transfers to the poor in Kenya without any qualification as to how the money can be used. Instead of squandering it, Kenyans used the money to repair their homes with durable, cost-saving materials and to invest in small businesses. A totally free gift with no expectations or conditions caused the Kenyans to behave more responsibly than if they had been yoked with more responsibility. Go figure.
GiveDirectly’s inspiration came across the border from Mexico, a country that has distributed cash transfers since the 1990’s to more than six million Mexican citizens. When cash transfers replaced food subsidies – Mexico’s version of ‘food stamps’ or Basic Needs – every economist looking on feared the worst: that the money would be used for legal vices like alcohol and tobacco and that domestic violence would spike as families fought over what to do with the cash. The economists had their charts and tables turned on them when no one fought or drank away the money. Studies proved that the children of families who received the cash transfers – and could have spent it on anything – were healthier and better educated than the kids from families who received food subsidies – and didn’t have a chance to squander it, it made no sense. Everyone expected that grants of cash would fall prey to the worst in human nature.
One explanation offered by GiveDirectly’s founders is that people know what they need. When they have the resources to meet those needs, they take care of themselves responsibly. When they don’t get what they need, they squander absolutely everything they get. Only when someone feels secure do they act secure.
Within this explanation is a final answer we don’t want to acknowledge about how to prevent crime. For God’s sake, just love us.
If we just outrightly grant love – and forgiveness – to the disenfranchised, the marginalized, the least lovable, the least worthy of love among us, they will act responsibly with it. They will become trustworthy only when trusted, dependable only when depended upon, respectable only when respected, considerate only when considered, careful only when cared for, forgivable only after they’re forgiven, noticeable only after they’re noticed, valuable only after they’re prized. It makes no sense, t
t it’s empirically true.
Whatever it is, it’s not new. The chaplain always teaches the prisoners that: “…When you’re loved, you’re good…” meaning that people who feel loved behave well. Anyone can see this lesson in daily life: kids whose fathers take time off from work grow up to be more stable. Employees who feel valued don’t squander their time on Facebook. Ladies who feel safe in their fiancé’s love don’t carp and complain about what happened at their betrothed’s bachelor parties. Someone who feels slighted gets rowdy. Someone who feels cheated on grows sneaky and clingy. But someone who’s loved? She’s good.
“But why should someone who broke the law get treated better than everyone else?” a Prison Diaries reader wrote to me before they canceled the column. I never got to reply to that woman directly.
If I had, I would have said that the simple answer is that they shouldn’t. They shouldn’t because everyone should be treated with respect, and lovingly, as galling as that is. We have to love the unloveable, treat discards like face cards out of pure self-interest because not giving, not loving, not trusting enough leaves everyone in torment. That’s all crime is, the unloved tormenting the rest.
Besides, that’s balance-sheet style thinking that doesn’t work to improve anything. It is totally unfair that people who never broke the law, never did much wrong, are the ones who must front the capital of love, trust and care to underwrite long lines of unsecured interpersonal credit to felons, societal deadbeats, who may have paid off some of the principal of their debts to society behind bars but who still wade in interest and penalties called untrustworthiness and being burdensome. Rationally, you might not lend money – or love – trust or concern – to someone who cannot repay you but emotionally you might have to and and it looks like being unwise might be how to solve problems of social justice.
My sales pitch may sound strong but I don’t use my own product. I’m the worst spokesperson for this problem-solving of emotional problems. From being hurt, betrayed, cheated so many times I harbor such anger that it is inconceivable to me that I can, much less should, open myself or make myself more vulnerable. To me, it’s putting the other cheek even closer to the other person’s fist with the caveat: “Now don’t exert yourself when you hit me again.” But as I cling to the rationality of the pain response I remind myself that I risk being wrong if I open myself too much but I risk living in chaos, in torment, if I don’t open myself up enough. The anger I feel is the result, not the cause, of not opening myself up enough of not trusting people because I think they’re untrustworthy and forgetting, that, by trusting them, I can make them so.
I need to practice more irresponsible interpersonal accounting and reckless charity and write off all of the uncollectable debts I accumulate in my heart. If I become less an emotional moneychanger, then I can be a game changer and change the game in a responsible way.
Imagine: the $212 billion prison industrial complex and 2.3 million people in chains, completely erased by one Beatles song. It will never add up, yet somehow it works.
THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM DECEMBER 18 – 25, 2016
Everyone but me got something good:
President Obama commuted the sentences of 153 more nonviolent federal drug prisoners. He also issued 78 pardons to men and women who have served their sentences on December 19, 2016.
Florida Supreme Court invalidated hundreds of death sentences. The Sunshine state’s highest court found that death sentences decided by a judge, not a jury, were unconstitutional. More than 200 inmates are affected by the ruling, which only applies to sentences imposed since 2002. That means more than half of the people on death row will get re-sentenced. Read the decision here.
The Obama administration Tuesday unveiled a new regulation that allows incarcerated parents to reduce their child-support payments while they are in prison. Currently support payments pile up and, upon release, parents face accumulated debt and the temptation to return to crime. They’re off the hook for a little while, at least.