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How can we truly prevent crime? That is, how do we effect a change in people’s hearts and minds that will stop them from committing crimes in the first place? 

Mere hoping for the best won’t do it. The best education doesn’t always work, nor the best parenting. In too many cases, even the threat of harsh punishment doesn’t work.

Every one of the governments in the world, from local, regional to national, attempts by retaliatory laws to restrain its citizens from committing crimes, employing punishments that range from mild to severe to death. Justice systems in too many countries punish the poor and exempt the privileged. For many with high-priced, effective legal counsel, criminal punishments seem like a very remote possibility. 

Jails and prisons abound. From municipal jails to large county jails, to state prisons, then federal prisons here in the United States, the Prison Policy Initiative estimates that our country now incarcerates 2,298,300 people out of a population of 324.2 million. This means almost one percent of America’s population looks out at the world from behind bars. No other country in the world imprisons such a high percentage of its citizens – the United States, with 4.4% of the global population, imprisons 22% of the world’s prisoners, the vast majority of them poor or people of color.

But this mass incarceration only tells a small part of the story. Along with the millions locked up behind bars, the U.S. Bureau of Justice reports that at any given time almost 5 million additional adults are under some form of “community supervision” – parole, probation or forced community service. American society uses prison sentences, probation and community service to force criminals to atone for their unseemly or illegal acts at higher rates than any other country on Earth.

Ideally, punishment should rehabilitate the criminal – but in our system, that doesn’t happen often enough. Once a person has served time in “the system,” chances are they’ll return. That’s called recidivism, and the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reports, in a study of 405,000 prisoners in 30 states conducted in 2005, that 77% of former inmates were re-arrested within five years of their release.

It might be easier, some insist, to convert lead into gold then to change criminal intent once a person contemplates actually committing a crime. 

So how do we change the contemplation itself? How does a society impact the individual’s motivation to do an illegal thing or to act reprehensibly? Or perform an unethical thing? Or a hurtful thing? How do civilizations convince their populations to act in a civil manner?

The Baha’i teachings offer answers to those important questions: 

The body politic … must punish the oppressor, the murderer, and the assailant, to dissuade and deter others from committing similar crimes. But that which is essential is to educate the masses so that no crimes will be committed in the first place; for a people can be so educated as to shrink entirely from any crime, and indeed regard the crime itself as the greatest chastisement and the most grievous torment and punishment. 

The body politic is engaged day and night in devising penal laws and in providing for ways and means of punishment. It builds prisons, acquires chains and fetters, and ordains places of exile and banishment, of torment and hardship, seeking thereby to reform the criminal, whereas in reality this only brings about the degradation of morals and subversion of character. The body politic should instead strive night and day, bending every effort to ensure that souls are properly educated, that they progress day by day, that they advance in science and learning, that they acquire praiseworthy virtues and laudable manners, and that they forsake violent behaviour, so that crimes might never occur. At the present time the contrary prevails: The body politic is ever seeking to strengthen penal laws and securing means of punishment, instruments of death and chastisement, and places of imprisonment and exile, and then waiting for crimes to be committed. This has a most detrimental effect. – Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, pp. 309-313.

What can change these inclinations and policies on the part of individuals, institutions, and governments?

An educated populace, statistics prove, generally has a lower crime rate. But formal academic schooling isn’t the only kind of education the Baha’i writings recommend – Baha’is also emphasize moral and spiritual education:

… if the masses were educated so that knowledge and learning increased day by day, understanding was broadened, perceptions were refined, morals were rectified and manners reformed – in a word, that progress was made with respect to every degree of perfection – then the occurrence of crime would subside.

Experience has shown that crime is less prevalent among civilized peoples – that is, among those who have acquired true civilization. And true civilization is divine civilization, the civilization of those who combine material and spiritual perfections. As ignorance is the root cause of crime, the more knowledge and learning advance, the less crime will be committed. – Ibid., p. 313.

The Baha’i teachings impel the world toward a new view of the purpose of humanity and creation, a view of respect and love, a view of hope toward the future. In terms of the criminal justice systems of the world, Baha’is believe that practical steps can be taken to change human behavior to the positive. In the concluding essay in this series, we’ll explore those steps.

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