A man is silhouetted as he walks by enlargements of self-portraits made by a formerly incarcerated artists during Mural Arts Philadelphia's press preview of "Portraits of Justice" at the Municipal Services Building in Philadelphia, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2018. Credit: Matt Rourke | AP

After someone has served a sentence in a jail or prison, have they “paid their debt to society” and been redeemed, ready to fully return — or does their contact with the criminal justice system leave a social stain that is difficult to remove?

According to research, much of the answer depends upon the assumptions we have about why someone might go to jail or prison. And the consequences of those assumptions can be huge for people who are reintegrating and the communities they’re returning to.

Research demonstrates that humans are constantly trying to explain one another’s behavior. When we see someone stumble on the sidewalk, we immediately and automatically make an assumption about why. But importantly, we make that assumption (called an attribution) based on the information we have and are thinking about.

In the case of a stranger on the sidewalk, we don’t really have any information other than the stumble, so we’re more likely to make an internal attribution — that is, we’ll assume the person stumbled because they’re clumsy — something about themselves made them stumble.

But when I’m the one stumbling, I have so much more information; I saw the crack in the sidewalk, the ice on the curb, or my untied shoelace. I saw all of the situational forces outside of myself that contributed to my stumble, and so my automatic attribution is external. I’m not clumsy; other things made me do it.

We make this error so often — explaining other people’s behavior as part of their personality and our behavior as a part of our situation — that psychologists call it the Fundamental Attribution Error. It may not matter too much when we’re talking about whether or not someone is clumsy, but it matters much more when we’re talking about whether or not someone is fundamentally good or bad, morally.

Larisa Heiphetz at Columbia University studies how adults and children think about people’s moral character. She finds that both children and adults often assume that people go to jail or prison because of internal characteristics — that is, something about their personal character led them to the justice system. Her research suggests that people very rarely spontaneously think about the social forces, like poverty, housing, and racism, that are enormous contributors to criminal behavior. Instead, they attribute being in jail or prison with internal characteristics (“They’re bad people”) or behavioral characteristics (“They did a bad thing”).

Importantly, she finds that these assumptions have consequences. When we think about someone’s “badness” as an essential personal quality because we’re ignoring the situational forces, we treat them worse and are less generous to them. Her work suggests that we should focus on those situational forces and changeable behaviors when making policy decisions.

For example, we can ensure people with a criminal history retain their voting rights as we do in Maine even though 48 other states do not. And we can support bills like LD1492 which would decriminalize possession of many controlled substances to focus on support and recovery rather than punishment.

Heiphetz is sharing her research at the Bangor Public Library on Monday, Jan. 27 at 5:30pm. After her brief presentation, there will be reactions and thoughts from: Charlotte Warren, the chair of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee; Natasha Irving, the district attorney for Knox, Waldoboro, Sagadahoc, and Lincoln counties; Mark Dion, a former Maine state senator, Cumberland County Sheriff, and deputy chief of police; and Kayla Kalel, an advocate at Young People In Recovery. And then there will be an open discussion about criminal justice and redemption in our communities.

You can learn more about the event by looking for the Criminal Justice Forum at Bangor Public Library on Facebook. I hope anyone interested in justice and supporting our communities will come contribute to our discussion.

Jordan LaBouff is an associate professor of psychology and honors at the University of Maine in Orono. Aaron Dustin is a second-year honors psychology major at the University of Maine with a focus on criminal justice. LaBouff is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.