Thursday, February 8, 2024

The challenge of balancing human rights for all

By Kieran McCartan, PhD.,  & David S. Prescott, LICSW

Last week’s blog post focused on an unfortunate reality: We can’t always discuss things publicly lest we be labelled as political partisans. Although no one is without some degree of biases and leanings, it is simply too easy to attack and be attacked for statements taken out of context. We recall the sad fate of someone who commented in social media that balancing the human rights of the client and the community can be a challenge. His statement was sent to a local politician, who went to the media and scored significant political points saying that this doctoral level researcher and policy wonk had a “catch-and-release policy towards predators.” (It is worth noting that many human rights are enshrined in international law as well as state and agency policies; the Tokyo Rules are one example. In the US, the death penalty has been ruled unconstitutional for sex crimes, but that hasn’t stopped some states from trying.)

Working in the criminal-justice field often presents many paradoxes and contradictions that leave professionals conflicted about their roles, and/or their belief systems. In some cases, we have to and having to justify our roles to others. On the one hand, compassionate treatment approaches are the most effective. On the other hand, the practitioner may have to work hard to to look beyond their own biases and beliefs to do so. Important to remember is that having compassion for someone does not mean that you condone or endorse their behavior; it means that you can see into their situation, try to understand, and prioritize their highest needs (which means developing a lifestyle free of harming others).

Over the years, this blog’s authors have written about the early-life adversity that has influenced our clients and the need for trauma informed practice in order to ensure the most effective participation in treatment. What we often talk about less is human rights, although many have done so. It’s easy to respect the human rights of law-abiding people, but more difficult top do that for people who have hurt and harmed others.

In recent weeks there have been many cases across Europe that have called for us to have respect for others, to call in question our moral lens and to advocate for human rights in difficult cases. We have seen a call for care homes to be built for aging individuals convicted of sexual crimes, an individual being tried and convicted of manslaughter on the grounds for diminished responsibility for the murder of three people last year in the UK, and the change in incarceration conditions for Josef Fritz as a result of his dementia diagnosis. These cases beg the question of how we best treat those whose who have committed horrific crimes when their capacity to understand their punishment is gone. Where are our human rights thresholds?

Not surprisingly, many have found it difficult to tread a line between compassion and punishment, especially when the system is built on the grounds of punishment. Public, as well as political, sentiment often reflects that. However, its important to remember that many professionals are in the field of rehabilitation, even as we work in environments that stem from punishment.

Rehabilitation, treatment, and support cannot be seen as an afterthought or an add-on to punishment. We all want people to come out of the criminal justice system better able to manage themselves in society than when they went in, or at least no worse. We have seen the damaging legacy of doing nothing through the failed “nothing works” doctrine of the 70’s and 80’s started by Robert Martinson, and that became a hallmark of the Reagan-Bush and Thatcher eras. We know though research and practice that treatment works, but that it can take effort and that it works in different ways, at different times, for different people. This can make it complex and not easy to rationalize or fund when one can’t entirely predict the outcomes. Although it can seem like we are in a revised nothing-works era currently, that is not true with the influence of public health and prevention policies in criminal justice. We are still talking about treatment and rehabilitation; but it’s challenging for professionals at times to engage in these conversations and find support.

We need to be compassionate in our work and think about the human rights of often risky and at-times dangerous people. How can we hope for them to reduce their risk and to integrate back into society if they can’t learn about pro-social, empathic, and good behavior from us? How can we best accept our clients even as we don’t accept their behaviors? How do we process our work with others? How do we explain it? Where do we seek help? And, more importantly, do we get help when we ask? It is important to provide a rationale, critically discuss, and support each other in the challenging times we are experiencing. Supporting people who have seriously offended and are dangerous is as much a collective endeavour as an individual one.


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