Appreciating this issue’s cover illustration, I found myself wondering if supernaturalists would wonder why God wasn’t pictured up top. If God is the ultimate judge, after all, he’s also the supreme sentencer.
When it comes to belief in such a divinity, my own personal argument is kind of the inverse to Pascal’s Wager. It goes like this: if such a god exists, when the time comes for me to be judged I’ll be okay even though in life I never managed to form a belief in him/her/it. I’ll be okay because I was a good person.
But we all make mistakes that affect other people. Some mistakes are a lot worse than others and so the punishment that our society—not our god—imposes should be commensurate. And yes, others commit willful, hurtful crimes that I think most of us would agree are punishable. But with U.S. violent crime on a downward trend for twenty years and the prison population on the opposite trajectory, we’ve got to admit something’s wrong with the criminal justice system.
As you will read herein, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, due in large part to the so-called war on drugs and also to the rise of for-profit prisons. Some call the “war” a war on sin, or a war on human nature, as explored by Brett Aho in “Humanism & Prohibition.” But as they’re waged, wars create winners and losers. So if our government and its law enforcement agencies have been fighting a war on drugs—are users and abusers being imprisoned for abetting the enemy or for being the enemy? Is putting them behind bars the answer?
As Jefferson Fish argues in “Rethinking Drug Policy Assumptions” it’s not enough to tackle the conditions and the chemistries that lead to drug abuse, and to distinguish between problem users and non-problem users (also considering that the former can in many cases become the latter). Humanists must also encourage building on the positive, nonretributive aspects of people’s lives.
Lawrence Jablecki would agree. He’s been teaching college-level philosophy to inmates for over twenty years, including courses in ethics and the theory and practice of punishment. Incidentally, his students aren’t primarily victims of the drug war. Many did commit violent crimes while intoxicated or under the influence of a drug, and, in fact, are resolute that drug addiction shouldn’t absolve them of responsibility for their crimes. But his point is that for myriad reasons, most of them weren’t particularly good people before and so rather than trying to “rehabilitate,” he teaches that knowledge and newly acquired understanding can “grab a human mind and change the direction of a life.”
In both his articles in this issue Jablecki challenges humanists to do more than combat the infiltration of fundamentalist Christianity behind bars (ministries funded, in some cases, at taxpayer expense). Humanists can involve themselves further in prison reform and efforts to habilitate those behind bars. Just last summer AHA Executive Director Roy Speckhardt provided testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee on the increasing and harmful use of solitary confinement in our nation’s prisons, which only serves to further damage any inherent worth or dignity a prisoner may have retained or has hopes to cultivate. “If he has a conscience he will suffer for his mistake,” says Raskolnikov in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. “That will be punishment, as well as prison.” Raising consciences seems like a suitable humanist endeavor to me.