There are a multitude of factors leading to crime: substance abuse, peer pressure, mental illness, opportunity, poverty, environment, genetics, illiteracy, gang affiliation, and a host of others. Yet, my 41 years as a lawyer and judge in our state’s criminal courts have convinced me that there is something that is present in almost every case where someone breaks the law: a weak set of moral values. The most common path to jail involves an individual who does not possess those morals our society upholds: personal responsibility, respect for others, accountability, and the overall good of the community. The person whose driving forces are self-gratification, self-centeredness, and “the ends justify the means” mentality, is more likely than anyone else to break the law and go to prison than anyone else.
A drug addict robs a convenience store because his craving for the next fix outweighs any concern for the owner’s rights. The teenager wanting to fit in, bows to the dictates of “the wrong crowd” because he does not have the backbone to stand up to the mob when they break into a home. The swindler who scams a trusting senior citizens to make easy money cares nothing for those who sweated and saved their whole lives to acquire something to live on in their twilight years. The man who kills a stranger for quick cash, a gang initiation, or on an impulsive whim has not thought once, let alone twice, about the wake of untold pain, grief, and shattered lives his senseless act will cause. In every case, someone with a strong code of morality would not yield to such temptations. Indeed, there are individuals who are substance abusers and suffer various mental illnesses, who daily honor the law because they have the inner strength and courage to refrain from committing a crime. Without a set of moral values, is it any wonder that two-thirds of those who get out of prison are soon re-incarcerated?
The average annual cost of keeping someone in prison totaling $29,160. We cannot imprison every criminal forever or we will go broke. We have to find ways to indoctrinate morality into those who would break our laws. Two proven programs to help are Cognitive Behavior Intervention (CBI), which teaches judgment making skills, and Moral Recognition Therapy (MRI), which teaches a set of morals upon which to make these judgments. But the courts cannot do this alone, if we are to salvage these people and keep them from harming someone else. We all have to get involved. We need those in our schools, churches, civic organizations, and businesses to help us teach people about proper values. Yes, they should have been taught this at home, but they weren’t. Unless we help them learn it, we may be their next victim. Every at-risk criminal offender should have some type of network of support, the kind Alcoholics Anonymous offers its participants.
It is good to see the preacher in court with the defendant, but I would rather see four or five church members there supporting her. I am glad Mama is in court with her son I am sentencing. I would rather see his employer present. When I see someone’s boss sit in court for hours, losing a day’s pay to ask for a second chance for the defendant, this tells me the defendant has a real support resource. I know his or her boss will scrutinize and support his efforts to lead a wholesome life.
Each of us knows someone at risk, who is in need of encouragement, moral support, and friendship. If not, we can find them in countless ways. Most of us can do something, from helping in a homeless shelter to volunteering in a prison ministry. Maybe the best place to help is to try to proactively deal with the problem before a young person breaks the law, by mentoring an at risk student in our school system, volunteering with a youth program. By offering some kind of help to show offenders what a life with moral values looks like, we are all in a position to help narrow, and hopefully close, the most common path to jail.
Jesse B. Caldwell, III
Senior Resident Superior Court Judge
Judicial District 27A