This is one reason the United States, with 5 percent of the world’s population has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners: We lock up the people we’re angry at, not just the people we’re afraid of.

....If you want a kid to stop acting childish, wait long enough and he’ll grow up. On the other hand, one way to turn a teenage thug into a thug-for-life is to lock him up in a prison full of adult thugs. Research is clear on this: Children who get caught up in the criminal justice system are far more likely to return to courts and prisons as adults.

Punishment alone doesn’t rehabilitate criminals. “Punishment creates resentment and anger,” William Morrissette, chair of the Criminal Justice Program at Bay State College, told me this week. “They think they have been victims of injustice.”

So they spend their time in jail figuring out how they are going to get back at the people who put them there. They learn nothing about themselves, and walk out of prison more dangerous than when they went in.

Punishment motivated by vengeance doesn’t do much for victims, either, though they often think it will. What crime victims really need is to understand why it happened to them. They want a sincere apology and some reason to believe the criminal has been changed by the experience, and won’t do it again.

That understanding between perpetrator and victim requires face-to-face communication, so they start to see each other as individuals. The victim learns that the perpetrator is a human with his own problems and issues, not an irrational, evil force that will forever haunt the victim’s nightmares. The perpetrator sees the damage he has needlessly caused, and learns who the real victim is.

That communication, Morrissette explained, is at the heart of “restorative justice,” which aims to heal, not just punish. It helps victims get closure and perpetrators attain self-awareness. The perpetrators must take responsibility for their actions, and repair the damage they’ve done, by apologizing, returning what they’ve taken or performing community service.

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