In Search of Criminal Justice

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People sometimes do very bad things, things so egregious that we do not feel safe having them live among us. We have to find them, try them for their crimes, and if found guilty sentence them to punishments that fit their actions. We have a criminal justice system for that which is struggling on many fronts. At this moment in the United States we have the largest prison population in the world both in actual numbers and percentages. We struggle with ethical questions of what we should do to prevent crimes and how to treat the perpetrators once they have been convicted. We can’t seem to decide whether our system should focus on punishment, rehabilitation, or some effective combination of both. We wonder what we might have done to prevent crimes in the first place thus eliminating the need for so many centers of incarceration.

I’m fascinated by the criminal mind. I have always wondered what drives an individual to the point of committing unlawful acts, especially those that are violent. I’ve been a reader of mysteries from childhood and my favorite television programs and movies have always been those that depict detective work, the law, and the frightening world of prison life. I suppose that I have always believed that if only we were able to unravel the threads of lives gone so bad we might learn as a society what causes them to reach a point of breaking the law. I suppose that such a dream has confounded humans since Cain murdered Abel.

I am a frequent viewer of programs like Dateline, 20/20, and 48 Hours. I watch Oxygen and Investigation Discovery. Recently Dateline featured a hard look at the country’s criminal justice system by way of Angola Prison in Louisiana. The episode focused on the problems of housing large populations of prisoners for long periods of time and asked the burning question, “Should criminal justice focus on punishment or rehabilitation?”

One of the most pressing problems in our country’s prison systems resulted from the hard line of the war on drugs. Because of the no nonsense feature of our efforts to eliminate the drug trade by giving drug users harsh sentences the prison population swelled and many of those found guilty are serving excessively long terms. The medical community has learned through research that illegal drug usage and addiction is in truth a medical problem rather than a criminal one. What most drug addicts need is assistance in beating their habits. Instead we have all too often put them away in jails where they interact with murderers and other violent sorts. The money  that we are spending on warehousing them for decades might have better been spent on sending them to centers for rehabilitation.

Another concern has to do with another outdated trend to try minors accused of violent acts as adults. There are now individuals in their seventies who received life sentences when they were only sixteen or seventeen years old. They have spent their entire adult lives behind bars with no hope for parole until the Supreme Court recently ruled that minors must always be tried in an age appropriate manner and their sentences must reflect the extenuating circumstances of their ages. We now know that the human brain is not fully formed until around the age of twenty five, In particular the centers of the brain that control behaviors are often the last to form, Thus the kinds of risky and inappropriate acts in which teenagers are known to engage appear to be part of development. Courts have ruled that inmates who were convicted and sentenced as adults for crimes committed as minors have the right to parole hearings even when they were sentenced to life without any hope of reconsideration.

The optics of the Dateline program were disturbing. Many of the inmates at Angola work in fields cultivating crops day after day in harsh weather conditions. The vast majority of them are black, begging the question of why this is so. What is so wrong with our society that so many resort to criminal behavior and what might we do to change this trend before such individuals end up in the prison system? These are dire needs that we have yet to fully meet. We have to break the cycles that plague the poor, the undereducated, the hopeless.

President Trump recently signed a bill offering many reforms of the federal criminal justice system, but the vast majority of the prison population are governed by state laws that do not fall under the umbrella of the changes made by the president. There are also still many citizens who sincerely believe that the only correct answer to discourage criminal acts is to follow a hard line. The debate continues while the number of the incarcerated grows.

More and more criminologists are learning that people can and do change if given opportunities to redirect their lives. They know that removing all hope only creates even more violence. Prisons now use more women guards who have the effect of calming the prisoners. Conditions are improving as research teaches more and more about how to rehabilitate the fallen.

There are those whose acts were so horrendous that they should never again walk amongst us, but there are also people who have paid for their mistakes and truly changed. It’s time we consider humane and caring ways of helping them to become contributing members of society.  States should follow the president’s lead in enacting justice and prison reforms. We need programs that understand and support the unique needs of those who are attempting to reenter the world of freedom. We need to focus on education and counseling at the earliest possible ages. It’s not about letting monsters run lose but about providing purpose and direction for those who have genuinely changed. It’s about compassion and forgiveness for those deserving of our consideration. It’s a focus that should be a priority for all good minded people everywhere.

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Strong Enough

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I awake early each morning and follow a routine that rarely varies. I prepare a light breakfast, brew some tea and wander to my sitting room, a place that was meant to be a study. I open the blinds so that I might see the first rays of the sun embracing the earth for one more day of possibilities, and settle in my easy chair with my laptop. I check several newsfeeds to see what has happened during my sleep and then I go to Facebook to find out how my friends and family are doing. It has become a way of communicating with one another that has kept me appraised of the welfare of even those who live very far away. Once I have an idea of the general condition of the world and those that I love I sit quietly in prayer and meditation, admittedly not as faithful and trusting as some of the more spiritual people that I know. Mostly it’s a conversation with God that varies depending on the circumstances of the moment.

On some days my entreaties to the Lord must sound like those of a whining child. I am often overwhelmed by the pain and suffering that I see. I want to be able to help those in need in more tangible ways and I feel a loss of control as though I am plummeting through the air in free fall, terrified by the uncertainty of what will eventually happen to me. I feel weak and vulnerable, two conditions that terrify me and that I mostly eschew at all cost. Sometimes though there is no escape and as I pray I am overcome with the calm that comes from the faith and trust that I am not alone. In those moments of clarity I realize that I have a parachute that will open at the very time that I need it. I realized that instead of fighting I need to relax and float through the air enjoying the view.

It’s difficult even in the best of circumstances for me to be so dependent on anyone or anything beyond myself, and yet I have seen days when my only choice was to plummet to earth in a state of panic or take the hands of God and the people around me to find the help that I so desperately needed. Like every human I have enjoyed blessings both great and small and endured pain and suffering that I thought might break me.

Each of us finds ourselves in situations that threaten to defeat us. Sometimes the hardest place to be is in the role of an observant to someone’s sorrow. It is deeply painful to watch a loved one or acquaintance bearing a weight that seems almost unbearable, especially when they can’t seem to get a break from circumstances that are beyond anyone’s control. Seeing them trying so hard to be strong and watching their efforts be compounded by disappointments and horrors is enough to make us question everything that we believe. It is in those rock bottom times that we have to surrender ourselves and suspend our need to be in charge, a most difficult state of affairs for control freaks like me.

I am all too aware these days of family members who are dealing with the burden of caring for multiple members who are either very ill or disabled. They are overcome by responsibilities that are demanding more of their energy than they ever dreamed they had. I am monitoring the progress of friends who are fighting like warriors to beat dreadful diseases. I am hearing the plaintiff cries of individuals who have lost children, a state that feels unfair and out of sync with the way things are supposed to be. I am observing young people who are confused and consumed with deep sadness. I know of others who have been betrayed by spouses or friends and now feel alone and hurt. I see the pain and suffering that attacks as serendipitously as a hurricane, leaving overwhelming destruction in its path.

A few morning ago I began my normal routine and saw two posts that struck me to the very center of my being. One was from a high school  acquaintance whose daughter died during the summer. She has been mostly stoic about her feelings but on this particular day she allowed those of us who know her to see the depth of her feelings and the hurt that is still so raw for her. She is a beautiful soul as was her daughter and the bond between them is as strong as ever and always will be. While her wounded heart is still far from mending I sense that it is on its way because she had the courage to admit how devastated she is. Being unafraid to admit our pain is so often the first step in healing.

Only a few posts down was another from a work colleague whose baby boy died in her arms eight years ago. She poignantly recounted the day on which her little angel left this earth only a short time after he was born. She spoke of her weariness at that time and how she was listening to Strong Enough on the radio as she traveled to the hospital not knowing that only a few hours later her son would be gone.

I wept eight years ago when I learned that my friend’s baby did not make it and I wept again when I read her story of the moment of his death eight years later. Then I listened to the song that had played on her journey to the unthinkable and pondered it’s message. I understood how the series of events that befell her were linked together in one glorious, mysterious way that brought her the peace and comfort that she needed. Like my other friend she will never understand why she had to face something so unthinkable, but she feels the presence of both God and her beloved child supporting her in ways that can’t be explained by logic but rather by the heart.

Sometimes words fail me and I find someone else’s to fill the void. So herewith are the lyrics for Strong Enough by Matthew West. Perhaps they may help someone much like they did my friend. I know that they spoke to me.

Strong Enough

You must

You must think I’m strong

To give me what I’m going through

Well, forgive me

Forgive me if I’m wrong

But this looks like more than I can do

On my own

I know I’m not strong enough to be

Everything that I’m supposed to be

I give up

I’m not strong enough

Hands of mercy won’t you cover me

Lord right now I’m asking you to be

Strong enough

Strong enough

For the both of us

Yeah

Well, maybe

Maybe that’s the point

To reach the point of giving up

‘Cause when I’m finally

Finally at rock bottom

Well, that’s when I start looking up

And reaching out

I know I’m not strong enough to be

Everything that I’m supposed to be

I give up

I’m not strong enough

Hands of mercy won’t you cover me

Lord right now I’m asking you to be

Strong enough

Strong enough

‘Cause I’m broken

Down to nothing

But I’m still holding on to the one thing

You are God and

You are strong when

I am weak

I can do all things

Through Christ who gives me strength

And I don’t have to be

I don’t have to be strong enough

Strong enough

I can do all things

Through Christ who gives me strength

And I don’t have to be

Strong enough

Strong enough

Oh, yeah

I know I’m not strong enough to be

Everything that I’m supposed to be

I give up

I’m not strong enough

Hands of mercy won’t you cover me

Lord right now I’m asking you to be

Strong enough

Strong enough

Strong enough

Source: LyricFind

Songwriters: Matthew West

Strong Enough lyrics © Warner Chappell Music, Inc

Look for the Helpers

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I suppose that I am showing my age by admitting that much about the world today feels unfamiliar and uncomfortable to me. I hear a constant refrain of complaining about virtually every aspect of society. Gratitude for what we actually have is rarely mentioned. Instead grumbling about every little thing is the mode. I find the whining to be contrary to my nature and unlikely to bring answers to the real problems that we face.

I have no doubt that we are always in need of improvements, but I think we would get a great deal more accomplished if we would stop all the trash talk that is hurled back and forth and just get down to observing what is right about the world and using that information to correct the difficulties that need improvement. Instead we can’t even seem to get through a natural disaster or tragedy without folks ramping up our divisions instead of highlighting our goodness. The true test of our mettle is not to be found in the mistakes that we humans are bound to make, but in the positive contributions that we offer over and over again.

These days we allow the media and people with an ax to grind to create a number of self fulfilling prophecies of doom. When horrific events occur we spend far too much time highlighting “might have beens,” angry mobs, unintended slips of the tongue, and other such mistakes rather than looking for the helpers, finding the light. The truth is that from the beginning of humankind’s adventures on this planet there has been a kind of duel between those who would hurt us and those who would sacrifice for our welfare. In truth the later far outnumber the former but we tend to give more attention to the ugly side of life, especially of late.

When I was in a classroom I found that each group of students that I encountered was a microcosm of reality. The vast majority of children were well behaved and willing to learn. Invariably I encountered a kid who was filled with venom and determined to run the show with his/her unacceptable behavior. When I was somewhat inexperienced with such things I tended to engage in battles of wills that rarely ended well. It took me quite a while to learn that focusing on the goodness of the youngsters in my classroom was a far wiser thing to do. I took away the very attention that the trouble makers desired and instead heaped it upon the students who always tried to do the right thing with only minor lapses now and again.

I did not totally ignore the young people with major problems whose cries for help were masked in aggressiveness. I understood that their ugly behaviors were indicative of needs that had to be somehow met, but I also did not engage in public combat with them. I refused to turn my classroom into an unending debate over what was wrong. Instead I continually highlighted what was right and good. I looked for the goodness and embraced it publicly while working on the troubles quietly.

I suppose that we almost naturally pay more attention to outliers than to the average. A story of a single doctor who hurts patients trumps one about the thousands of miracles taking place every single day with the help of dedicated physicians. We see the flaws more quickly than the overall appearance of a situation. When a disaster strikes somewhere the big story is what the victims did not get rather than the overflow of kindness from countless strangers wanting to help. We make the mistake of lumping entire groups of people into baskets of “deplorables”  when a single gunman shoots up a venue. Like the first year teacher we yell at the entire class and punish them for bad behavior even as we know that most of them are not guilty of anything at all.

I am still haunted by memories of hurricane Harvey that hit my city of Houston with a vengeance. I was terrified during those days of unremitting rain. I watched images of the city filling with water as though some heavenly presence had forgotten to turn off a giant faucet. What I loved most about the local news coverage is that every single story focused on the helpers. We saw everyday heroes rescuing people that they did not know. There was a joint effort both during and in the aftermath of the disaster to reach out to anyone in need. While there might have been mistakes made it was not the time to belabor points about what should have or could have been done differently Instead we were treated to a vision of the very best of people and it helped us to weather the storm. By looking for the helpers we realized that we would ultimately be okay.

I don’t mean to paint an unrealistic picture of the world that does not include evil for it is most certainly present. What I do know is that horrific people and horrific acts are an aberration. Most immigrants are good, Most teachers are dedicated to their students. Most police officers are working to keep us safe while risking their own lives. Most teenagers want to become outstanding adults. Most humans try to be the best possible versions of themselves. While we have many imperfections they are not the whole story of who we are and yet they are the ones that we see in every headline and newsflash. They bring notoriety to the few who are bad while ignoring the good. Maybe when we see them our first inclination should be to avert our gaze and look for the helpers. It is in the goodness of people that we will find the answers to the problems that we hope to solve.     

The Dreamers

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They came to America with little more than a few belongings and hope that somehow their lives might be better than they had been from where they had traveled. They were refugees from a government that wanted to erase their language and their culture. They were hated and accused of being lazy in a place where their family had lived for ages. Perhaps in their new home things might be different, at least that is what they desperately wanted to believe as they settled into a small apartment in the foreign environment of Houston, Texas.

They found jobs that were menial by most standards but they were proud to have work so they didn’t complain. He toiled in the blazing summer sun while she worked over a hot stove cooking for the hired laborers. It was back breaking work that left them aching and exhausted at the end of each day. They struggled with learning English and their dark looks and strange accents gave them away wherever they went. Not everyone was welcoming. In fact some people insulted them without ever attempting to get to know who they were. It was a difficult and lonely life, but it was still better than what they had known. They were free. They were saving money, things that never would have happened back home.

Before long their first child was born, an honest to God official citizen of the United States of America. The man told his wife that their son must speak English and learn everything possible about this great new country. So he did as did his brothers and sisters who numbered eight before the woman was no longer able to bear another child. She had her hands full at home now raising her boys and girls, taking care of the garden and the house that they had built from the fruit of their labors. They paid for each room in full, adding to the square footage bit by bit until it was finally done.

They were not always loved by all of their neighbors. Some of them worried about having strange  people from a strange land in their midst. The children of the man and woman knew nothing of the old country. They were red, white and blue Americans right down to their toes, but still they heard taunts that they did not understand as they walked to school. Sometimes they had to dodge the rocks that hurtled dangerously close to their bodies. They did not understand why they were despised and they complained to their father, but he urged them to hold their heads high and be proud because they were citizens of the greatest country on earth. He assured them that hard work would one day change their fates. He reminded them again and again to love the United States in spite of those who wanted to chase them away.

They grew into a fine lot. They earned diplomas and served in the military. They worked as hard as their parents had taught them to do. Nobody noticed that they were the children of immigrants once they left home. They blended into society as though their ancestors had arrived on the Mayflower. They married and had children of their own. Those children became college graduates and climbed even higher up on the economic and social ladder. Their grandchildren knew nothing of hard times or being shunned. The dream that had sprouted in the hearts of their immigrant ancestors had burst forth in full bloom. It was a beautiful thing, the American way.

Those were my people. A grandmother and grandfather from Slovakia who risked all that they had ever known to find opportunity. Never again did they see their homeland or the people that they had known there. They had mothers and fathers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends whom they left behind. How frightening it must have been. How courageous they were even as they sometimes found prejudice and lack of understanding in their new home. What a precious gift they gave to their children and ultimately to those of us who descended from them.

Surely we owe that man and that woman some kind of payback. Perhaps it should be in welcoming the newest immigrants from foreign lands to America. If we can’t understand the people who are searching for the same freedoms that our grandparents sought, then who will? How can we deny them a new start? Why should we assume that they will not work as hard or be as devoted to the country as our ancestors were? How can we see them as less than the rest of us? Once before it was believed that people like my grandparents would ruin the United States with their ignorance and questionable habits. No such thing occurred. In fact we have contributed to the good of the country in remarkable ways. History demonstrates that in most cases those that we allow to join us enhance our society rather than tearing it down.

Houston, Texas where my grandparents settled before World War I has become the fourth largest city in the nation. It is also the most diverse. No race holds a majority position. We have people of many colors from all over the world. They have made our city vibrant and exciting. We are the future whether the rest of the nation realizes it or not. No wall will erase the fact that we are living in harmony and demonstrating to the entire world what it means to be generous of spirit and talents. Ours is the kind of place that my grandparents wanted for their children when they traveled across the ocean in a steamboat so long ago. Today there are others who are longing for the same chance. Such people have always made this country great. Perhaps it’s time for the children of yesterdays dreamers to extend a hand of welcome to the dreamers of today.

Dancing With Reckless Abandon

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My empathy meter has been in overdrive of late. It has been a rough few months and weeks for so many that I know and for others whom I have never met, but for whom I have great sympathy. I have felt incredibly frustrated because I have not been able to actually give tangible help to any of the people about whom I have worried. The best that I have had to offer is a kind word, a listening ear, a hug and some prayers. The list of people for whom I am sending entries to God has steadily grown to the point that I just say, “you know who needs your help” whenever I implore the Lord to give them comfort and maybe even a miracle. Still, my efforts feels so feeble because I tend to be a control freak and the world is crowding out my ability to take charge. For that reason I reached a low point recently and felt that I needed to find a way to lift my own spirits. That’s when something rather extraordinary happened.

I was idly perusing the posts on my Facebook wall when I saw a photo from my friend Serena. It was a picture of her and her daughter at the beginning of the school year. My relationship with Serena goes back decades when she and I were both teaching mathematics at South Houston Intermediate. Our principal had chosen both of us to attend a conference and so we shared a hotel room where we got to really know each other. Serena was literally young enough to be my daughter. In fact, she was around the same age as my two girls.

I suppose that I appeared to be a middle aged motherly figure to her but that all changed when she set her alarm to play music to wake us up one morning. The radio clicked on at the appointed time and played a song by Depeche Mode. Serena quickly apologized for not thinking that songs from such a group might be a bit too strange for me. When I laughed and admitted that Depeche Mode was one of my all time favorite bands our friendship was sealed. We talked about which of their songs we liked best and what other groups we enjoyed. That broke down the wall that our differing ages had created and from that point forward Serena and I regularly got together for long and very deep conversations. It was only when she decided to return to her home state in the midwest that we lost touch.

Eventually Serena and I found each other again on Facebook and I happily learned that she was married, had a daughter and was still teaching math. I have taken great joy in viewing her happiness over the years and I’ve even considered making a trip up north one day to visit with her once again.

That takes me back to seeing a photo of Serena at the time when I was feeling rather dreary over all of the pain and suffering that is going on around me. It made me smile to think of how wonderful Serena’s life has been, but it also reminded me of a time when I was a forty something woman at the peak of health, joy and accomplishment. In those years I regularly listened to Depeche Mode at full volume and danced around my house with reckless  abandon. It was an unbelievably freeing experience that unleashed the person that I truly am. The photo of Serena triggered those feelings of elation that I used to feel and I thought what elation dancing has always provided me. I suddenly decided to ask Alexa to play some Depeche Mode and when I heard  those familiar sounds I pranced around my great room like I was at a party . I didn’t feel at all silly since my husband was off helping his father with a computer problem. I was energetic and free and chasing away all of my negative thoughts.

One thing led to another as I took a kind of walk down memory lane and felt a genuine sense of happiness in thinking of friendships that I have cherished with people like Serena. I also harked back to my teaching days and how I had felt such a sense of purpose in helping so many students to master the fundamentals of mathematical concepts. The faces of my students literally passed through my mind. That’s when I realized how to channel my worry for those about whom I care into something meaningful.

I am presently working with a student who is feeling rather anxious about his high school math class. Helping him will be so constructive, and it is something that uses one of my talents in a positive fashion. I also now homeschool seven other students in math. It takes little of my time, but makes me feel as though I am still contributing to the good of the future. Somehow I have always found a modicum of comfort in the act of learning during the most difficult times of my life. Focusing on something that engages my brain helps me to stop the cycle of anxiety that builds up when things are going awry. I’ve found shelter for my fears in academic pursuits from the time that my father died and all through the years when I was caring for my mother. I highly recommend learning of any kind as an antidote to sadness.

I also realized as I was dancing around that any effort that I make to ease the pain of someone else is a good thing regardless of how small it may be. I know that I whenever someone has sent me a card or thought to call or invite me to something that might take my mind from my woes, I have always felt better. They could not change the situation that concerned me but just knowing that someone cared was enough to get me through the worst times of my life.

It’s funny how that little photo of Serena lifted my spirits and helped me to think more deeply about how to tame my sadness. Friendships are like that. They reach across the miles and and through the years to remind us of the blessings that we have. My heart is lighter now and I know that there will be brighter days ahead. They always come and I foresee lots of dancing my future.