Reflections on a bicycle lost

A few weeks ago, my wife mentioned to me that the door to a storage closet at Unity was wide open. Odd, I thought… but I didn’t check on it then. That was Saturday. I finally took a look at it just as I was getting ready to lead a service the next morning. 

The door, which was padlocked, had been forced open and my bicycle was gone. Stolen. 

I went ahead to lead the service – not mentioning the theft. It percolated through my mind for while instead. I noticed that I felt some anger… anger against the thief, anger against whoever made it easy for them to get in the building, and even anger against myself for not making sure the door to that room was locked more securely. 

When I called the police, I learned something more. The real world is not like the crime shows on television! No forensics experts came over to check for fingerprints or collect bits of DNA left by the perpetrator. No one drew pictures of the scene and concluded by the way the screws had pulled from the wall that the thief must have been left-handed, 11 and a half stone in weight, had blue eyes, and a distinct fondness for scampi fries. None of that. 

No, the police don’t actually come to the scene of the crime at all – which naturally gave me something else to be angry about. 

The theft of a bicycle is a relatively common crime in this city – 20,000 are stolen each year. But this particular theft has made me think a bit more about crime and how we deal with it. I’m still thinking about it and, today, I want to share some of my reflections. It is fair to say that crime and our response to it is an enormous and complicated issue. I don’t plan to offer any brilliant solutions. I merely want to tease out a few strands. I have come to think that how we as a society treat the victims and perpetrators of crime is crucial to our identity as a people and for our future. I hope that this can be the beginning of a discussion among us all. 

With my bicycle stolen, one of the obvious places my mind turned is toward punishment. This criminal should be caught and locked up. Now, I am very fortunate that I did not suffer terribly much from this crime. I can get to work just fine without the bicycle – it is not an essential item in my life. Also, I have insurance, which will pay for at least part of a replacement. 

But if I had suffered more, I think I might want the thief to suffer as much as I did – or more. 

This is why we have a penal system, of course – to punish criminals for their crimes. Or is the penal system to reform criminals so they might change their ways? Or is it to provide penalties that deter people from committing crimes? Or is its purpose to protect society from dangerous individuals? Ultimately, it’s a bit of each – and that’s where it starts to get messy. 

I think of the Buddhist story of Angulimala. In part, this story is meant to tell us about the remarkable man called the Buddha and his power to transform even the most terrible among us. 

But there are two other strands in the story. First, Angulimala did not become evil without help. The story points to the causes behind his horrific cruelty. It was cruelty and unfair treatment that led to his criminality. Second, this is a story of a lost soul being reintegrated into society. The Buddha is not looking for punishment and the King, having seen Angulimala restored to humanity did not seek it either. 

A few facts: 

According to a home office study, in 2007, 65% of all released prisoners were reconvicted within two years. That number is higher if you look specifically at young male offenders: 73% were reconvicted within two years. Reconvicted. That means caught, tried, and found guilty. Remember that the police don’t even show up for minor crimes like bicycles stolen out of church closets. This has got to tell us something about the ability of the penal system to reform criminals – it seems almost completely ineffective. 

In fact, imprisonment as it is currently practiced may actually make criminals worse. Being imprisoned, despite the availability of some programmes intended to prepare offenders for a more productive life, is a horrific experience. It is, in many ways, the opposite of the way the Buddha treated Angulimala. The Buddha appealed to Angulimala’s humanity. He offered kindness and serenity. 

The prison system offers dehumanization and cruelty. 

If you have any notion that prison is an easy experience, consider that in 2008, there were 10,466 incidents in which prisoners harmed themselves in English in Welsh prisons. In that same year, 60 people killed themselves while in the care of the prison service. 

The people who end up in prison are not all the dangerous people from whom we must be protected. In 2003, 78% of imprisonments were for non-violent offenses. 

And upon release from prison, the problem is often compounded by a lack of support. Ex-prisoners – and particularly those who have served short sentences - are often more or less dumped on the street with little money, no one to guide them, and no where to go. Without resources, it is hardly surprising that they most often turn to crime again. 

If reform is the goal, we clearly seem to be failing. 

If protecting society is the goal, we may be succeeding for the worst offenders who get imprisoned for very long times, but mostly we are failing because most prison sentences are short and criminals come out of prison at least as likely to offend as when they went in. At that end of the crime scale, prison may actually worsen the situation. 

If deterrence is the goal, who are we deterring? Albert Einstein said “If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.” If you were not afraid of being caught and punished would you steal my bicycle? Would you steal anyone’s bicycle? Does deterrence actually affect only those who would not offend in any case? It is not clear that it has much effect on those who would. 

This leaves us with my original anger. My property has been taken. I want someone to be punished. 

There is an important distinction made between two different ways of dealing with crime: retributive justice and restorative justice. 

Retributive justice is about retribution – about punishment as valuable in and of itself. "life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot." This is the guidance from the Old Testament. The benefit of retributive justice is meant to be for the satisfaction of the victims of crime – to create equity for them by counterbalancing their suffering with the suffering of the offender. Retributive justice exacts pain for an offender commensurate in some way for the pain of the victim. 

Restorative justice, on the other hand, is based on the notion that offenders should, as much as possible restore the harm they have caused. In practice, it means that offenders make reparations to victims, but it is usually much more than returning the bike or repaying the money. 

Restorative justice is, in the ideal, restoration for victim and for offender. It is restoration of the fabric of connectedness that is torn by criminal action. 

The British justice system has begun to experiment with a variety of restorative justice programmes. 

Very often, these efforts involve direct contact between victim and offender. 

When a burglar broke into his home and attacked him, Will Riley’s life was absolutely shattered. Some time later, he found himself at Pentonville prison sitting across from the attacker, Peter Woolf. It was not a pleasant encounter by any stretch of the imagination. In Riley’s words: "I shouted at him that he had crushed every belief I had that I could handle myself and protect my family." For Riley, this was a healing opportunity – finally being able to express this anger to the man who had caused the damage

For Woolf, the career criminal, it was a watershed moment. "I wanted the ground to swallow me up” Woolf said. “I felt so ashamed. So I went on the defensive, then Will started listing the effect I'd had on him – so many things I hadn't given a thought to before." 

Eight years later, Woolf had not reoffended. In fact, he is now working as a facilitator of the same sort of process that brought him and Riley together at Pentonville. 

Anecdotes aside, does restorative justice really work? 

It has been hugely popular with victims, 85% of whom have reported being satisfied with the process. Reoffending rates are reduced by 27%. Victims are 32% less likely to show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Yes, this approach that repersonalizes and rehumanizes the way we deal with crime really does seem to make a difference. 

Finally, I want to turn to the difficult challenges that crime raises for us religiously. Central to my faith is a belief in people – in their inherent worth and dignity. While this doesn’t mean that no one should be put in prison for wrongdoings, it does mean that I have to think about and wrestle with the question of how the goodness in that person got lost and perhaps, how it can be nurtured. 

Our reading from Khalil Gibran tells the story of a young man who turned to crime and cruelty out of poverty, need and the lack of care he received from others. 

Elsewhere, Gibran has written: 

The murdered is not unaccountable for his own murder, 
And the robbed is not blameless in being robbed. 
The righteous is not innocent of the deeds of the wicked,… 
Yea, the guilty is oftentimes the victim of the injured, 

To blame society for every crime would be too facile. And yet, the structure of our society is a cause. 

I did not cause my bicycle to be stolen. I am not responsible for inducing the thief to grab it. Not directly, anyway. 

Morality and responsibility becomes hardest to comprehend and manage when complex systems are involved. 

Where did the money come from to purchase that bicycle? I was working for a biotechnology company at the time. That company was financed by a venture capital firm, which in turn was financed by extremely wealthy individuals. How did they make their money? Great wealth relies, to some extent at least, on inexpensive labour. Inexpensive labour requires that there is more supply of labour than there are jobs. In other words, the wealth that trickled down into my bicycle was created by ensuring that other people were jobless. 

Joblessness leads to lack of education, deprivation, and a sense that the world is unfair – that we have nothing to lose. It leads to crime. 

It is anything but a direct connection and my moral responsibility is not simple. I did not deserve to have my bicycle stolen, but I am also not blameless. I am a part of the system that creates inequality – the system that provides opportunity to some and denies it to others – the system that pushes some families down into generations of deprivation and others up into unearned generations of privilege. 

On my bicycle, the food I ate fuelled the muscles in my legs to push pedals that moved a chain, that turned gears that turned a wheel, and I moved. I am no less connected to the thief who stole my bicycle than my cycling speed was connected to the source of the food that fuelled it. 

For true justice, we must think bigger and more systematically. We must begin to see the indistinct connections between distant causes and effects, between offenders and victims, between all of us. Only by understanding and working with these complex levels of connection can we hope to bring about true justice. 

Where should we stand on crime and punishment? How will our faith lead us to guide our political leaders? How might we get involved ourselves to make a difference in reducing the causes of crime and reduce reoffending? 

These are among the difficult questions that face people who care deeply about justice and who recognize the value of every human being. These are among the questions that challenge those of us who prefer to turn to love. 

It is my hope that we may begin to wrestle with questions such as these and that we may continue to shine the light of justice and peace from our hearts until the dream of a just world becomes reality.