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I came home to a burglary in progress. Four people I didn’t know had taken just about everything of value out of my house, and then had decided to move in and trash the place. I walked through the front door and grabbed two of them. The other two ran out the back.
This led me to consider the big questions of crime and punishment.
We can probably all agree that society should punish people who commit crimes.
And conversely, we can all probably agree that, even more importantly, our society should do everything it can to prevent crimes from happening in the first place.
Without even considering the humanitarian aspects of the problem, from just the most basic economic standpoint this concept of prevention makes good common sense. In the United States, our prison population has reached record levels, quadrupling since 1980, and the monumental monetary costs of incarceration have risen even faster. Last year the average cost per U.S. prison inmate exceeded $30,000 per year. America now incarcerates one out of every 100 of its people—1% of the country’s population–which means that the nation founded on freedom now spends upwards of $75 billion a year to keep a couple of million people behind bars.
If we could cut that figure in half, we could fully fund every school in the nation. So how can we do that? How could we possibly move from the material civilization we have now, where crime runs rampant and harsh punishments try to stop it; to a more spiritual civilization that prevents crimes from occurring?
Several years ago, when my house was burglarized, I had my own run-in with the criminal justice system, and that experience helped me understand the problems and try to do something about them using the Baha’i principles of justice, mercy, crime and punishment:
See then how wide is the difference between material civilization and divine. With force and punishments, material civilization seeketh to restrain the people from mischief, from inflicting harm on society and committing crimes. But in a divine civilization, the individual is so conditioned that with no fear of punishment, he shunneth the perpetration of crimes, seeth the crime itself as the severest of torments, and with alacrity and joy, setteth himself to acquiring the virtues of humankind, to furthering human progress, and to spreading light across the world. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 132.
With that as the ideal and the goal, here’s the rest of my true crime story.
I lived in Venice, California, about five blocks from the beach. Wonderful, right? Sure, the weather smiled on me every day and the ocean felt warm and welcoming. The problem? My neighborhood had recently become a target for the area’s drug addicts. They burglarized my little house, where I lived for just a couple of years, three times during that period. Apparently, I learn slowly.
The third time, I returned late one night after an out-of-state trip and walked in on the burglars. They weren’t the scary, burly, hardened criminals you might imagine from watching TV—they were just kids, teenagers barely out of high school, maybe runaways, stoned and scared and obviously without any parental supervision. Actually, you have to take leave of most of your senses, and get pretty high, to hang out in a house you’ve just ripped off.
Like I said, I grabbed two of them, but the other two got away. The two I caught, a sleepy young blonde girl and a skinny, wired boy, trembled and tried to figure out what I might do. While I held them each by a wrist and waited for the police to arrive, I felt violated and injured and downright mad. I angrily asked them to explain themselves. The boy said “Uh, those guys that got away stole all your stuff—we were just here getting high.” A likely story, I thought, looking around at the total destruction in my house. He was clearly lying. I’m a nonviolent guy, so I didn’t hurt them–but I’ll admit it crossed my mind.
The police came and arrested the two teenagers and congratulated me for catching fifty percent of the dastardly perpetrators red-handed. (Although one of the cops said “You shoulda called us—we woulda caught all four.”) The detective promised I would testify at their trials, and a few months later he told me the time had come. I went down to the courtroom to see justice in action.
In the courtroom I sat next to a distinguished older man wearing a suit and tie who looked like a banker or a university president. Then the bailiff led his blonde daughter in. Emaciated, bruised, in shackles, with a jail pallor and a great pall of shame on her face, she glanced at her father with a plea in her eyes. Every trace of anger immediately fled from my heart. Next to me, her dignified father began to weep.
The judge called the case, quickly heard the evidence and my testimony, and slammed his gavel down twenty minutes later. “Guilty,” he said. Then the girl’s father rose and tearfully asked the judge “Please, your honor, my daughter has a drug problem, and her mother and I just learned she’s HIV positive. This is her first offense. She’s been badly beaten by other inmates in the jail already. I beg the court, please sentence her to a drug diversion program.”
“Bailiff,” the judge barked, “how long is the waiting list for drug treatment programs?” The bailiff consulted a book on his desk and said “A year and a half, your honor.”
The judge, without looking at the father or his daughter, banged his gavel down again and said “I sentence you to eighteen months in County Jail.”
At that moment, I knew that I had to do something.