“Those who regard worthless idols Forsake their own Mercy.” -Jonah 2:8
Recently, there has been a proposal to amend the constitution to reduce the adult age to sixteen in criminal cases.It has been approved for consideration and debate which is the final step before it becomes official. This means any sixteen year old that commits any crime ranging from petty theft to murder would be confined in the same facility as adult prisoners. The recent poll shows that about 87 percent of the population are in favor of this new proposed amendment. Those who are against it are mainly the House of Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church and people like us who work with the children and teens from impoverished areas. The people argue that they are fed up with the fact that teenagers can commit heinous crimes and are sent to juvenile centers until they are eighteen and then set free. The truth is that the heinous crimes are rarely committed by teenagers but this Law would affect all the teenagers who make unwise choices in their lives. No one disagrees that the incarceration system needs reform but there is hardly any talk about reform in this discussion. This proposed amendment is about punishment; as if the fear of punishment would generate automatic rehabilitation. This simplistic view of the situation is not going to create a safer society but it may facilitate the creation of dangerous criminals.
In my blog posts, I rarely address any political issues. I don’t do this to avoid controversy. I only address them when they are relevant to the children and teens in our ministry. This amendment directly affects our work. Therefore, it is necessary to say something from the perspective of our vocation.
Brazilian prisons are notoriously overcrowded.* I have not visited any adult prisons recently but I have spoken to adults who have been incarcerated. They tell me that an average cell built to hold eight people is overcrowded with at least thirty inmates. Everyone is grouped together. Petty thieves and dangerous murderers sleep in the same cell. Sometimes they have to take turns to sleep because of the lack of space. Within the prison walls, gangs run the show. Those who are affiliated with the gangs are free from violence and rape. Consequently, everyone has to join a gang to survive or even if they don’t, their families have to pay the gangs to protect their loved ones. On the other hand, those who join the gangs are treated with respect and dignity. Their families receive financial help from the gangs on the outside and on visitation days, they are spared some of the humiliating process of being strip searched to visit their sons and daughters. Most men who are imprisoned have affiliated themselves with the gangs because it is the only way to survive. Now, imagine a sixteen year old boy in this situation.
Perhaps, some will argue that they shouldn’t have chosen the life of crime and they deserve what they get. However, the question any good person should ask is why a young man or girl would choose the life of crime?
Most of these young criminals come from impoverished neighborhoods. The schools in these regions are precarious to say the least. A friend of ours taught in these schools. He told us that some of the school buildings are made out of tin literally. During the summer months, the heat is unbearable and the students and teachers have no choice but to endure it. Our friend was an enthusiastic graduate from college who wanted to give his best in a profession whose starting pay is about US$350 per month. Just to give you a point of reference, the rent for a small one bedroom house in the worse neighborhood in the outskirts of the city is more than half of that. You really have to a vocation to do this job. Unfortunately not everyone in this profession has a vocation. Our friend once heard a teacher say in the teacher’s room that her greatest wish was that these children grow up to be utter failures and frustrated in everything they do. This is hardly the kind of role model we would wish upon our worst enemy.
In these neighborhoods, there is rarely a library. There are insufficient social services for the large number of people living here. Both parents often have to work to support the family. The children and teens are in the streets most of the time because their homes are too tiny and hot to remain indoors all day. The streets are filled with unsavory opportunities. Drug dealers roam the streets freely without any problems from the police. They are not afraid of anyone especially the police. The children are exposed to corruption and hypocrisy to the extend that they have lost all respect for the civil authority. The drug dealers are people who have convinced themselves that the only way out of poverty is through crime. They can be the cousins and uncles of these children and teenagers. They might be people who genuinely care for them. Their involvement in crime does not deprive them of their human sensibilities. Unfortunately, these things also make it hard for these children and teens to think negatively of their criminal choices. To make matters worse, the drug dealers are always present and the children have a tendency to admire those who are most present in their lives.
None of these reasons should be confused as excuses for someone to embrace a life of crime. However, this is the hostile environment in which these children and teenagers are constantly exposed. Despite this, many who live in these situations never commit any crime. It does not change the fact that there are many impressionable ones who are seduced by the fleeting perks of criminal life. The real crime is that they live in an environment where crime is a viable option, whereas work and good education are no where to be found.
Many people believe that these young criminals are inherently bad and there is no hope for them. Many of these people go to church on Sundays and read the same Bible as those who oppose this Law. No one is saying that these young offenders are innocent. We believe that they need to be rehabilitated. However, sending a sixteen year old to a cell crowded with hardened criminals is inhumane punishment. I will admit that we are making a choice to look at this from the perspective of the children and teens we know. As I am writing this, I am looking at a picture of Igor and Ana Paula. They both were sent to juvenile detention center at the age of seventeen and Igor only left the detention center when he turned eighteen. He spent a major part of his teenage years incarcerated. Today, he wants something completely different for his life. All his life, people have told him that the life of crime was his destiny. He did not want to believe this, but he was always surrounded by criminals and he did not see any way out. When he was incarcerated, the guards constantly said that he would amount to nothing and he would die a criminal’s death. Today, he said that for the first time he is surrounded by people who hope the best for him. He can imagine a better future for himself. This is not just the case of Igor. All the teens and children that we wrote about in this blog desire someone to believe in them. They don’t want to give up hope but they need people from the outside to help them turn this into a reality. None of them are hardened criminals. None of them want to spend their lives in crime.
The essence of the gospel message is about mercy. One of the most disturbing parables is the one of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:21-35); the servant was forgiven undeservedly of his debt and yet he refused to show mercy to his co-servant. Consequently, he forsook his own mercy. The prophet Jonah tells us that those who worship false gods forsake their own mercy. It makes complete sense. In order to show mercy, we need to believe in a God that is able to do incredible things like transform the life of a person who has given up hope for himself or herself. We cannot believe this unless we have experienced it in our lives. If we take the mercy we received for granted as if it is something we rightly deserved, then we do not understand mercy at all. Consequently we do not know the God who is merciful.
Showing mercy does not mean that we pretend no offense has been committed. It means that we believe that all people are worth redeeming. It means showing in practical ways that we believe everyone has the potential of becoming a person who follows the footstep of the most perfect Human Being expressed in the person of Jesus. Mercy seeks to understand why people do wrong things and tries to correct them. The unmerciful servant was only interested in punishment. He wanted revenge and by doing so, he inadvertently chose his own demise.
87 percent of the population will find this post offensive. I don’t write this to offend anyone. I write this because the way to create a better and safer society is to become a more merciful one. I am not a fool to believe that we will live in a merciful society in this reality. However, we don’t have to be part of creating an unmerciful order. I pray that God’s mercy will prevail and the Law will not be amended. To do so is to sentence these teenagers to a life of crime and certain violent death.
Please pray with us that God’s mercy will prevail.
* The situation of the Brazilian Penitentiary system can easily be verified through a google search.