ALTERNATIVE APPROACH TO “CRIMINAL JUSTICE”
By Kathy Kelly [Kathy Kelly, a three-time nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, wrote this in the Pekin (Illinois) federal Prison Camp, where she was doing time for nonviolent civil disobedience demonstrations against nuclear weapons and the Ft. Benning School of the Americas.]
The United States Pacifist Party platform is, I believe, the sturdiest set of sane policies to guide this country through very troubled times. Thanks for inviting me to help “design” a plank on criminal justice and alternatives to the current system of imprisoning offenders. The “social imagining” required for creating a platform plank strikes me as exceptionally good exercise–the “teacher” in me immediately wanted to create a class project for students. I hope you’ll invite many people especially teachers and students, to brainstorm and refine ideas for platform planks. The following was developed through numerous conversations with companions in the Pekin Federal Prison Camp.
I want to preface thoughts about alternatives to prison with a brief reality check. The majority of U.S. people are quite likely convinced that current structures are legitimate and can’t be dismantled. What’s more, a strong network of well-paid professionals derive profit and prestige from the status quo of “the prison-industrial complex.” Judges, lawyers, prison architects, wardens, owners and executives of companies with lucrative prison contracts, all have an investment in maintaining their roles. Those who teach and practice law enforcement at many levels have acquiesced to the current system and seem disinclined to recommend sweeping changes. Every federal government employee is allowed an economic stake in the extremely profitable prison industry corporation, the Federal Prison Industry (FPI), also called UNICORP. It’s noteworthy that no one other than federal government employees can hold shares in this corporation, adding to the incentive for the American Federal Government Employees Union to lobby against significant prison reforms. Finally, lawmakers themselves often find that promises to be “tough on crime and crack down on drugs” help them win elections.
I am writing these thoughts about a USPP platform on criminal justice inside a prison library, on a quiet Sunday morning. Almost every one of the women I chatted with this morning before I sat down to write is facing ten or more years in Pekin Federal Prison Camp. Each of these women could easily have fit into any work place or community I know of in “mainstream America.” Some years ago, I spent nine months in a maximum security prison. I didn’t encounter “the bad sisters” in that prison either. I’ve met women who could have been my next door neighbors, co-workers, sisters-in-law, and work supervisors “on the outside.” Yet, here in prison, we are quite isolated. 82% of the women here are first-time offenders convicted of nonviolent crimes. Over one-fourth of them are long-termers facing eight or more years or imprisonment. At the FCI medium high security prison for men, next door to us, the average length of sentence is approximately 25 years. Mainstream America seldom notices that the prison population has quadrupled over the past 20 years. 2.1 million people are locked up in federal and state prisons.
Formidable forces favor keeping an entrenched system in place. Myths about dangerous sociopaths who belong behind bars have fostered a “throw away the key” mentality in the U.S. style='font-size:13.5pt;font-family:Arial'> Who shall we expect to climb aboard a platform calling for abolition of prisons?
The social pain caused by locking up 2.1 million people has not been publicly processed. And yet, each prisoner has relatives and friends who may well welcome “social imaginings” claiming the U.S. prison system is not an absolute necessity. If organized, such groups could become a significant voting bloc. Joined by practitioners of nonviolence who refuse to accept the current arrangements, they could collectively ask a question nearly alwayss posed by reformers and revolutionaries: Are the current arrangements absolutely necessary or are they contrived? If they are a contrivance, developed to serve the needs of special interest groups at the expense of an oppressed group, then these arrangements can be undone. Nonviolent activists are urgently needed to work on behalf of people who are trapped in a cruel and wrongheaded system of so-called criminal justice. Admittedly, any groups campaigning to change this system face a monumental challenge. The odds against abolition of prisons are reminiscent of those faced by early abolitionists determined to dismantle the system of enslavement, or of the odds faced by sharecroppers, students and a handful of ministers determined to abolish segregation and Jim Crow laws in the U.S.
A courageous first step, fundamental for the scope and scale of changes we would envision, is adoption of the USPP’s “zero military budget.” If we redirected funds currently poured into military spending, we would liberate approximately 400 billion dollars to meet human needs. Along with that vast sum of money, we could also anticipate freeing up the richness of talents, research capacities, innovative thinking and enmeshing of various disciplines which is now commandeered by the U.S. military.
Educators and students would become especially indispensable to developing new mindsets regarding crime, restitution, community safety, national security, and rehabilitation of individuals and groups whom the wider society deems to be guilty of endangering the common good.
We’re thinking of educators from a wide variety of backgrounds, inclusive of primary, secondary, college and university communities, but also of those who help form young people’s thinking and evaluative skills through non-traditional means of education such as members of sports, entertainment, recreational and journalistic fields. Another crucial group to enlist in forming progressive measures would be the educators from faith-based communities.
An essential first step would be to clarify what actions pose the greatest threat to U.S. people and to the survival of our planet.
The USPP can show that the development, storage, sale and threatened use of nuclear weapons, along with the stockpiling and use of chemical, biological, and conventional weapons has caused massive death, destruction, maiming, orphaning and poisoning in every part of the globe. Unbridled U.S. military expenditures have engendered global arms races which have further cost millions of lives by mis-spending trillions of dollars of resources which could have been used to eradicate poverty, hunger and disease. Instead they were spent to afflict the world with war. Environmentalists would specify crimes caused by producing acid rain and other pollutants, depleting the topsoil, over consuming irreplaceable resources, and failing to maintain ecosystems necessary for survival on our planet. Social scientists would point to statistics which show that a major cause of death in the U.S. is traffic accidents, many of which are caused when people drive under the influence of alcohol. Health care professionals would identify threats caused by sale of addictive and disease causing products, such as cigarettes. Sale of cocaine, heroin and other addictive drugs would also be highlighted as life threatening, particularly in areas where violent crimes accompany the drug sales. Additions create the greatest costs. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse collects data on costs to states of tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs. Tobacco and alcohol addictions create the greatest costs.
Efforts to correct these socially threatening activities would require the ingenuity and determination of numerous groups. The thrust of correction efforts, however, would not involve imprisoning those who are or were involved in the endeavors labeled harmful and threatening to human life and survival. Where appropriate, truth and reconciliation committees might be fostered, to help communities heal from the wrongs inflicted on them by those who profited from abusive activities. For instance, one of the worst industrial accidents in modern history occurred in Bhopal, India, when a Union Carbide Company plant disaster caused enormous death and destruction. Dow Chemical Company now owns the plant. The Dow Chemical Company executives would be required to enter into fair negotiations with the communities still affected by the plant disaster. Oversight committees would assure that the communities were compensated and that the surrounding land and water was decontaminated.
Singling out certain individuals as the most blameworthy and attempting to punish them would be discouraged. Such scapegoating would create a smokescreen obscuring wider societal responsibilities incurred by people throughout the first world who have lived quite comfortably in part because the resources in poorer countries have been exploited and controlled by corporations which have helped maintain our unfair standard of living.
In this framework, manufacturers and peddlers of nuclear and conventional weapons wouldn’t be imprisoned for mass murder or serial murder. Rather, they would enter negotiations to direct their resources toward socially useful projects. Scientists, engineers, and researchers would assist in rehabilitating the weapons making companies to design valuable end products such as mass transit systems or irrigation systems. Similarly, officers of tobacco manufacturing companies wouldn’t be imprisoned for selling death-dealing products and even marketing them to sicken and impair young people. Rather, they would be assisted to direct their resources toward health care and detoxification centers.
A reader might object that this discussion doesn’t pertain to the population actually inhabiting U.S. prisons. I want to reiterate the importance of asking who or what actually poses major threats to us, to our children, and to the future of our planet. It’s not likely to be the “criminal” who, possibly out of desperation to get an economic stake in an impoverished community, participated in the underground economy of that community and sold drugs to someone else in that community. The major threats to our lives and future, the inescapable terror which our children and their offspring will face, stems from what we ourselves are doing to pollute our air, land and water. Some of the most prestigious people in our society, CEOs of major corporations, well-respected scientists who use lucrative research grants to design new generations of insidious weapons, legislators who protect the interests of greedy industries that ravage the planet–these people have accumulated enormous wealth and privilege while causing untold and perhaps irreversible suffering and damage. They don’t go to prison. Nor should they. But we must be truthful about who and what causes the most criminal damage to our lives, or children and our future.
Now, who does go to prison? 1,240,000 of the people imprisoned in the U.S. federal and state prison systems are charged with nonviolent crimes. 78% have committed drug-related crimes. According to Families Against Mandatory Minimums, half the federal and state prisoners serving mandatory minimum sentences are first time offenders. In March of 2002, Federal Bureau of Prisons Director, Kathy Hank Sawyer, testified before Congress that, “70 some percent of our female population are low-level nonviolent offenders. The fact that they even have to come into prison is a question mark for me. I think it has been an unintended consequence of the sentencing guidelines and the mandatory minimums.”
Additction to drugs or alcohol is a disease which creates horrible suffering for the addict and, quite often, for loved ones, neighbors and co-workers of the person struggling with an addiction. Fortunately, rehabilitation and recovery are within reach for many people.
Programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and Gamblers Anonymous effectively assist people in overcoming their addictions. Individuals afflicted with addictive disease should , at every stage of their suffering, be treated as people in need of curative help. Just as we wouldn’t allow a person with tuberculosis to spread the disease, we would want to help a person with an addiction to go to a place where he or she can recover. However, that place should not be a punitive or degrading environment. The rehabilitation facility should offer the best possible medical care, family counseling, substance abuse counseling, and lifestyle counseling. Keep in mind that some of the finest minds in the country will now be dedicated to creating these environs, and that new education will help remove social stigmas attached to people who succumb to addictions.
Suppose that it takes two years for a person to fully recover from his or her addiction. He or she would be required to remain in the rehabilitation facility until counselors and medics agree that the patient is in full recovery. Throughout those two years, the recovering individual would enjoy other freedoms and, as often as possible, time would be spent with family members. Support systems would be in place to help keep people vitally connected to their loved ones. Perhaps the addicted person would want to give back to society some measure of community service, during or following initial processes of recovery. It might be desirable for him or her to work in a detoxification center or to counsel young people to avoid addictions. These decisions would rest in the hands of loved ones, counselors and the person recovering. They would never be entrusted to a prosecutor who could earn a promotion by turning over numerous cases settled through plea bargains. No one accused of drug use or drug sales would be pressured to “snitch” on others.
Wise and compassionate educators and students would work, constantly, t