Social Isolation Contributes to Reoffending

September 4, 2019, 3:48 pm

No society that fails to protect its citizens from exploitation and harm can long survive. So, crime has a stigma to it, and right it should. Citizens should be protected against crime. When citizens suffer because of the crimes of others, offenders should be held accountable. Nevertheless, a tension exists between stigmatizing crime and harmful actions, and stigmatizing the people who commit such acts. 

Harming another person, whether physically or in some other way, ought to be shameful. Our response to a person who harms someone else should be to shame them, but in a constructive way. Shaming an offender ought to be directed at reforming the offender’s actions. John Braithwaite, an expert in restorative justice, calls this “reintegrative shaming.” Holding someone accountable for bad behavior necessarily involves shame, but properly done, shame is restorative. It compels an offender to reform his behavior and to constructively contribute to society rather than harming it. Reintegrative shame leaves open the possibility of restoration to society’s favor after proper reform has taken place. 

Unfortunately, very little constructive shame occurs today. Rather, shame is used as a weapon to isolate and ostracize people. It is used to divide people of different political ideologies. It is also used to stigmatize people based on religion, sexuality, race, and a host of other “identities.” In the criminal justice system, toxic labels are applied to offenders with the sole intention of causing social isolation. Offenders who serve their time are released back to society stigmatized and ostracized. They face discrimination on many fronts, including housing, employment, and government benefits. They are even sometimes restricted from participating in the rights and privileges of everyday citizens. 

In his book, *Cannery Row*, John Steinbeck aptly notes, 
“There are two possible reactions to social isolation–either a man emerges determined to be better, purer, and kindlier or he goes bad, challenges the world and does even worse things. This last is by far the commonest reactions to stigma.”

With a failure rate that would have long shuttered profit-seeking businesses, the criminal justice system sees 66% of its charges return to prison within three years of being released. *That* is shameful. The reasons for such a failure are many, and not all these reasons belong on the shoulders of the criminal justice and prison systems. Offenders bear much of the weight of their own failure. However, the criminal justice system does bear some responsibility for its utter failure to reform its charges. 

Society, also, bears some responsibility. Until returning citizens are provided a true path back to social inclusion, to real belonging, many will continue to do, as Steinbeck put it, “even worse things.” No one can long bear the weight of stigmatization, of social isolation, without eventually deciding to live up (or down!) to the expectations of society. 

Let’s keep crime a shameful thing. Anyone ought to be ashamed for harming someone else. But let’s also commit to making social ostracizing a thing of the past. Let’s clear a path of redemption for those who, by reason of their shame, determine to emerge “better, purer, and kindlier.”

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The opinions expressed within posts and comments are solely those of each author, and are not necessarily those of Women Against Registry.

The opinions expressed within posts and comments are solely those of each author, and are not necessarily those of Women Against Registry.