Saturday, August 28, 2010

Reform through Dignity

Law and Grace, Franz Timmermann
Well God damn it, Keith Humphreys just made up for a terrible post with an excellent one.  He describes a piece for Newsweek he co-authored with Mark Kleiman, about a promising new sobriety program in South Dakota.  My favorite part of the piece:

For a criminal justice program, 24/7 Sobriety is remarkably respectful of offenders. I sat in one morning at a breath test station and watched dozens of people convicted of DUI come in, blow their breath test and then move along, each taking no more than a minute or two. The staff members were friendly, greeting each person by name and wishing each a good day. The building looked like a credit union. Because there were no uniformed officers, cell bars or guns visible, offenders with aversion to law enforcement would not have any instinctive ambivalence about coming in. The offenders also had some camaraderie among themselves, expressing pleasantries as they saw other offenders they knew in the testing station.

This is an excellent point. Society has to get over the notion that there are “bad people”. There are bad behaviors, and there are people who have a really hard time not doing them. But it is a moral imperative that we honor the dignity of every man, woman and child. Not only is this a moral issue, but as you point out, a utilitarian one as well. People do not respond well to humiliation. Most negative behaviors arise from dysfunctional feelings of low self-worth. They know right from wrong, but they choose the negative behavior because they lack the inner strength to choose otherwise. Doing the “right” thing seems unimportant because they don’t feel valued enough to show they have integrity – why bother?.

So what every “deviant” needs desperately is a sense that they are valued and that their behavior matters. In my classroom, my philosophy is that every kid is a “good” kid. There is nothing they can do to show me otherwise. There are rules, and consequences. But this is made clear, and then – most importantly – they are shown that they will be loved no matter what. As soon as a kid is on my side, the defiant behavior stops. They want to please me. They want to show me that they can do the right thing. I'm no miracle worker, and there are plenty of students who are just dealing with too many issues.  But regardless, this becomes one of the few places in their lives where they feel like they actually matter.  And that is a start.

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