Justice Reform Begins with Understanding

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“Congo Square,” sculpture by Adewale S. Adenle, New Orleans, 2010. Louisiana slave families gathered on Sundays to sing, dance, and drum in the West African style.“You end up with broken families. You end up with communities that are being plagued with more violence and more crime. And you end up with people not reaching their God-given potential.” This sort of remark about the impacts of mass incarceration on life in America is typical for liberal politicians and Friends. In this instance, however, the New York Times was quoting Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio (3/13/2014). Remarkably, a bipartisan coalition is developing to move public policy in the criminal justice arena in a way that respects that of God in all persons – including those in prison – and at the same time advances public safety.

I will get back to policy issues in a moment. Let me start with my experience.  In the early 1990s, when I lived in Pennsylvania, our Meeting began a prison ministry. We took turns each week going to a maximum security prison nearby. We held discussion sessions and Meetings for Worship with a group of prisoners there; many were in for life. 

We met in a classroom – with no guards present.  Our objective was not to change policy or help release individual prisoners, but simply to create a quiet setting (prisons tend to be cacophonous) where we could exchange thoughts, get to know each other, and do the same things we did each Sunday morning in our own Quaker meeting.  Thinking perhaps that we might be teaching the prisoners, we soon realized that they were teaching us. We got an inkling of what it was like to be a prisoner, and we overcame many of our stereotypes. We had not expected the prisoners to be as articulate and thoughtful as they were.  We learned especially how deeply they felt their separations from their families. Over time, we saw that, to a small extent, our group had become part of their “family.”  This experience, which lasted more than ten years, changed my concept of human beings in prison.

When I moved to the Northwest ten years ago, I got involved with Friends Committee on Washington Public Policy (FCWPP), a Quaker organization that advocates and lobbies for public policies in Washington State.  Founded in 1997, FCWPP – along with FCLCA in California – is one of a small number of statewide Quaker organizations that deal with state governments. Although we also work in the areas of economic justice and environmental protection, much of our focus is in the arena of criminal justice.

Friends from the very beginning have concerned themselves with prisons. In fact, in the early days, Friends were often the inmates.  From George Fox, to Elizabeth Fry, to Lucretia Mott, and up through today, Friends have always carried concerns for individuals who run afoul of the law. Our motivation arises from our respect for each human being and from a realization that there is often a thin line between a life course that is acceptable to society and one that is not.

Incarceration extends beyond the time and walls that define a term in prison. It reaches the prisoner’s family and other loved ones, and it reaches beyond the time of the prisoner’s release. Roadblocks to employment, housing, and parental rights confront individuals after incarceration, and they carry the stigma of imprisonment for the rest of their lives.  Families of incarcerated breadwinners often struggle in poverty – and they may share the stigma of their imprisoned family members. 

In her book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander quotes the mother of an incarcerated teen, “Regardless of what you feel like you’ve done for your kid, it still comes back on you, and you feel like, ‘Well, maybe I did something wrong.  Maybe I messed up.’” (p. 160)  In turn, the 2.7 million children who grow up with an incarcerated parent are more likely to be suspended from school and, as they grow up, are more likely to become enmeshed in the criminal justice system. And the cycle goes on.

During the past forty years, the number of incarcerated Americans has risen so quickly that the rate is roughly five times as high today as it was in 1970. The US rate of incarceration is also at least five times higher than the rate in most other developed democracies. This increase in incarcerations did not result from a similar increase in crime rates. In fact (with some significant variations in between), the crime rate today is about the same as it was in 1970. More people are in prison today because we have new public policies – think “tough on crime” and “war on drugs.” These policies are of dubious effectiveness, and they exact an enormous cost in human lives. Moreover, prisoners are not a cross-section of our society. They are disproportionately minorities and those with low education, low job skills, and low income.

In seeking to correct this situation, our goals should be: engender compassion for our fellow human beings, reconstruct lives that have gone awry, protect public safety, and redirect public dollars away from prisons and toward real human needs. More immediately, our objectives should be: direct people who are drug-addicted into public health care rather than punishment, relax mandatory minimum sentences, correct policies that discriminate while purporting to be colorblind, and reorient criminal justice away from punishment and toward rehabilitation.

The Smarter Sentencing Act, which at the time of this writing had passed the Senate Judiciary Committee with bipartisan support, would cut in half the mandatory minimum sentences for many federal drug offenses, although it would also add new mandatory sentences in other areas.  Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) supports the bill’s reductions in mandatory minimums and opposes the new sentences it proposes.  The Second Chance Reauthorization Act, now in the Senate Judiciary Committee, also enjoys bipartisan support. It would authorize funds for family-based substance abuse treatment and community-based reentry programs for offenders. 

In the state of Washington, FCWPP has had some significant successes in the arena of criminal justice.  In 2009, we helped restore voting rights in Washington state to felony offenders after their release from prison and community supervision.  We developed a bill – and helped get it passed in 2012 – that defines and specifies restorative justice as a suitable alternative to incarceration for juveniles. This year, we have made progress on several fronts, including a bill we helped to pass that provides for the sealing of juveniles offender records. Another bill we helped pass forbids the possession of a firearm by anyone under a restraining order and who is considered a threat to a family member or partner. But despite hard work, other bills were blocked in this past legislative session, including bills to provide post-secondary educational opportunities for prisoners and consideration for early release based on achievements in prison.

Recently, the number of incarcerated Americans has finally begun to drop, if slowly. We must continue building coalitions among disparate political groups, to accelerate this trend. We must replace the “one-size-fits-all” concept of punishing “bad people” with the reconstruction of human lives according to individual needs. We are in this effort for the long haul, and we need not be deterred by setbacks, however frustrating.  

Valuing that of God in every person has always been a distinctive trait of Friends. Our concern and support for persons who are voiceless, especially those in prison, are enduring expressions of our faith. Friends’ public policy organizations offer one avenue toward prision reform. Helping individual prisoners maintain human contact with families and friends “outside” is another essential approach. To work on behalf of our fellow Americans who are in prison is a way of honoring the humanity of all of us and a way to help heal our communities when individuals are released from prison and reunited with their families. ~~~

Sam Merrill is Clerk of Friends Committee on Washington Public Policy and a member of Olympia Friends Meeting (NPYM).