I don’t often comment on the news in this column. But a recent news item caught my eye.
Canadian Press reported, “A woman in Winnipeg who snatched a stranger’s baby from her crib and smashed the girl’s head on a sidewalk says she’s spent enough time in jail.”
The woman admitted her guilt. She claimed she was at a party in the residence, too drunk to know what she was doing. Her lawyer argued that neglect and abuse in her childhood contributed to her problems with alcohol and anger.
She has spent almost two years in jail, awaiting trial. She thinks that’s sufficient punishment.
Is that what jails are for? Punishment?
Perhaps naively, I would have assumed that jails had two purposes.
First, to offer rehabilitation. To help offenders recognize the error of their ways, and thus learn how to avoid repeating them. It doesn’t sound as if that’s happened with this woman.
Second, to quarantine those who cannot not be trusted in an open society – those who are utterly amoral, totally selfish, beyond redemption.
Our culture tends to associate those incorrigible traits with pedophiles, pornographers, serial and contract killers, and those who cannot control their violence.
These are questionable judgements, though. Not long ago, society would have had little hesitation in adding to that classification homosexuals, Jews, and individuals with Downs Syndrome – all of whom are now accepted as responsible members of society.
The trouble with the punishment model is that once the punishment has been served, the offender’s debt is considered paid off.
And that’s nonsense.
Last month, a ten-year-old girl died in a boating accident on Okanagan Lake. Even if someone is eventually punished for nautical negligence, nothing will bring that girl back.
Every act, good or bad, thoughtful or thoughtless, is irrevocable.
Whether it’s a harsh word to your partner or a big lie about weapons of mass destruction, whether it’s cheating a few pennies on your lunch bill or a trillion-dollar banking boondoggle, once it’s done, it can’t be undone.
Life does not have an “undo” button. You cannot rewind the tape. You can’t turn time back.
You can try to make amends. You can repay embezzled funds or give back stolen goods. You can spend the rest of your corporate career trying to rebuild shattered trust. With therapy and enormous effort, you can even reshape your attitudes, your reactions, your personality.
That’s rehabilitation. It’s valuable. It’s important.
But even rehabilitation never scrubs the blackboard clean. It can’t erase the impact your actions had on other people’s lives.
Punishment doesn’t even clean the blackboard. The mindless scrawls, the slurs, the epithets are visible after you’ve served your detention. Nothing has changed.
Instead of using punishment as a model, we should recognize, and teach our children, that everything we do will have an effect. On us. And on others.
Do we want that action to cause ripples of joy, of peace, of harmony? Or ripples of pain, of sorrow, of regret?
Because there’s no such thing as an action that has no effect on anyone.
Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author of 17 books and several thousand magazine and newspaper articles. He welcomes comments; firstname.lastname@example.org.