All of God’s creations deserve to be treated with dignity, even those who have committed crimes that disregard the dignity of their victims.
As part of my rabbinical duties, I counsel individuals going through difficult times including those who are incarcerated. There are few places as dark as a correctional facility, where people are most in need of the inner peace that comes with faith.
I recently received a list of prison inmates I’d be visiting here in Arizona. My first thought was to Google the names on the list to check out their criminal records, but as soon as the thought crossed my mind, I realized such an internet search would risk denying the inmate his dignity. It presupposes that the person incarcerated is less human than those of us on the outside — as if he must be vetted before being given spiritual guidance. I am not a judge, juror, or attorney. My job is to provide religious support notwithstanding what an individual may have done.
Jewish tradition emphasizes the preservation of human dignity. Maimonides, the great 12th-century codifier of Jewish law, teaches that “all of the judge’s actions should be for the sake of Heaven and human dignity should not be light in his eyes.”
In my role as a chaplain, recognizing human dignity means recognizing that every single human being, regardless of how low they have sunk, possesses a godly spark. As the U.S. Supreme Court stated, echoing Maimonides, in Furman v. Georgia, 1972, “Even the vilest criminal remains a human being possessed of common human dignity.”
In the late 1700s, when common law imposed a mandatory death sentence for murder convictions, the citizens of the 13 American colonies — and later, states — chose not to convict on capital offenses rather than issue a guilty ruling which they knew would result in a death sentence. Eventually, in recognition of the need to judge each person as an individual, judges or juries were granted the power to take individual circumstances into account when sentencing. Recognizing the unique circumstances of a specific crime recognizes the humanity in the criminal.
Defense attorneys recognize human dignity when they take the cases of criminals whose actions they may abhor, but will nevertheless defend the rights of the accused.
Prosecutors recognize human dignity when they — in the words of the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct — “make reasonable efforts to assure that the accused has been advised of the right to, and the procedure for obtaining, counsel and has been given reasonable opportunity to obtain counsel.”
Their role is to prosecute, yet they must treat each defendant with dignity.
Even the most hardened criminal receives “three hots and a cot” (three meals and a cot to sleep on). Neither the state, nor I, are ignoring the evil an individual has done. We are simply recognizing the humanity contained within the individual, even in those cases where the individual has cast humanity aside.