coffee-1345833_1920A couple of months ago I began working at a coffee shop not far from my home as a barista. The job has been great, but by far one of the best parts has been having the ability to speak with the hundreds of customers who come in the shop every day. I’ve grown to understand a deeper level of the vastness of individuality. Debaters would benefit by seeing the ways their discussion is heard by the real world. We can talk for days in debater-land about John Locke, the social contract, or the subtleties of justice -but societies across the world are made up of individuals. Understanding the effects a nation’s values have on those individuals is fundamental. In order to understand how rehabilitation affects Criminal Justice Systems, it is necessary to understand how Criminal Justice Systems affect society in the real world.

Elements of Rehabilitation

Rehabilitation rests on the idea that crime happens for a reason

Advocates of rehabilitation believe that crime is heavily influenced by social surroundings, psychological development, and biological makeup. Whether this is true or not is a separate discussion. Rehabilitation run by the Criminal Justice System is there to alter the factors of crime in a person’s life. If it is true that criminals choose crime because of these factors, the Criminal Justice System can reform these aspects of criminals to reduce recidivism. Correctional interventions can alter the factors that lead to crime, thereby reducing the chance of the criminal re-offending.

Criminals are not entitled to rehabilitation

Rehabilitation would benefit the criminal – but that’s not why it is done. Changing the criminal is a means to protecting society. That is why you will  often see the affirmative speaker’s value be something along the lines of “Societal Well Being” this year. Rehabilitation in the Criminal Justice System exists solely for societal well being. So why not tip the scale of the debate through your value?

Retribution is shown to a criminal as an end to itself. We show retribution to restore balance to justice, and give the criminal his just deserts. However, rehabilitation in the criminal justice system exists to protect society.

Rehabilitation exists to protect society

Rehabilitation is a tool -used by the criminal justice system -to reduce recidivism. Increased recidivism rates leads to an increase of crime and injustice within society. For the debater, it is important to see the distinction between rehabilitation focused on helping the criminal and rehabilitation focused on helping the society. The common use of the word rehabilitation plays more to the idea of going through “rehab” to help with some physical condition. This is an end in and of itself. Drug addicts fighting their addictions attempt to have their physical condition rehabilitated. However, this rehabilitation is done for personal needs.

Rehabilitation fails when society is left unprotected

This might at first appear obvious, but consider the potential negative ramifications of valuing rehabilitation higher than retribution. If rehabilitation fails, then not only would the state lose the fundamental advantage of rehabilitation, but justice itself would be neglected. For many countries, this is simply too big a risk. To balance the scale of justice, retribution must be shown to the fullest extent if the Criminal Justice System cannot properly rehabilitate criminals.

Rehabilitation limits the just punishment that is shown to the criminal in the utilitarian hope that the most good will be done for society. A worthy goal, but difficult to achieve. This is what makes the Norway’s rehabilitative policy effective. Prisoners are released upon demonstration of rehabilitation. The highest sentence that a Norwegian judge is allowed to pass out, even to the greatest offender, caps-out at 21 years. After that 21 years the criminal will be re-evaluated by the courts, and if deemed rehabilitated, the criminal will be released. This policy takes into consideration the need to show retribution to criminals to balance the scale of justice, but it doesn’t disregard the practical effects rehabilitation can have on a society.

The gravity of rehabilitation

Lives depend on rehabilitation

One of my favorite TED Talks, which also happens to be one of the most helpful for this year’s LD resolution, is about a prosecutor from Boston who shifted his goal from locking people up to transforming lives. Adam Foss realized that he had the power to influence the lives of the many men and women who came across his desk -people who needed help. He tells the story of one specific young man whose name was Christopher. Christopher -who stole thirty laptop computers and was charged with thirty felonies. Instead of locking him up, Adam helped Christopher become accountable for his actions, return the laptops, set-up a payment plan to help cover damages, do community service, and write an essay about how his crime could affect his community. Christopher applied to college and went on to graduate from a four-year-school. After not seeing each other for six years, Adam bumped into Christopher at a gathering of professional men from around Boston. Christopher approached Adam, and hugged him. Christopher had become a manager of a large bank in the city. Rehabilitation, in this instance, radically changed somebody who needed help. It took a hindrance to society and created from that a helpful member of society. This is the power of rehabilitation.

But rehabilitation doesn’t always work out that way. The Youth Rehabilitation Act in Washington D.C. was designed to help people like Christopher. But an intensive study conducted by The Washington Post examines the failures of this system. Shareem Hall was sent to jail in 2013 for invading a home and holding the family at gunpoint. He was sentenced under the YRA and released from prison in 2015. A year later, Hall was a co-conspirator in a shooting of a woman that took place during a robbery. It is unclear who pulled the trigger. The woman’s aunt said, “You’re telling me you can come back out on the streets and rob again, hold people hostage again, kill again — because of the Youth Act? …What type of judge is he? To allow them back on the streets?”

In a similar case, two twins were convicted of committing a hate crime against a gay man. The man was bullied, kicked, and slashed in the face. Their judge departed from the recommended sentence of 4-15 years under the YRA. This judge invoked an eminem song, “Lose Yourself”, as justification for the sentence. ““It’s the most inspirational song, even though he’s applying it to, like, rap music,” the judge said in court. “It’s like, you only get one shot. And his one shot is that he had to — you know, it’s in the movie ‘8 Mile’…the rap has to be so good. You only get one shot.””

If this were a debate round, and any of those examples were brought up, I would brace myself for the “they are isolated examples” and “we need to look big picture” arguments -but this isn’t a debate round. My work as a barista has helped me appreciate people as individuals.  Perhaps due to the customers all have their own, unique, favorite drink, or because they tell the most fascinating stories. Whatever it is, I don’t want to leave the real world out of the way I debate. Knowing how my community is affected by the debate I am having influences the way I debate. The effect rehabilitation has on societies and communities should be the deciding factor for how it is used. The real people that are being impacted by rehabilitation in the real world deserve to have their voices heard.


Noah Amedick is a Coach in Training at Ethos Debate. He has competed in high-school speech and debate for 6 years, ranking at the national level multiple times. As a debater, he has placed first at six tournaments, and second at two others. His life outside of debate is vast: Noah is a music producer, barista, photographer, Eagle Scout, and piano teacher.

%d bloggers like this: