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, to rationally and systematically assess behaviors that jeopardize the human community. Their evaluations would be open to the air of public opinion and community approval. A decentralized system to identify “offenders” and “offensive actions” would be established. Community boards, democratically formed, could meet with any individuals or groups seeking to enter a recovery program. These individuals or groups would be treated favorably and generously, hopefully crating an incentive for others to follow suit. They would immediately have access to health care and coverage of expenses for their loved ones who are dependent on them, throughout their recovery process. They would be assured of assistance in regaining employment and decent wages throughout the process of conversion away from harmful activity and into helpful endeavors. Incentives to leave an addictive or abusive lifestyle would include assurance that no recovering person would be saddled with a stigmatic record.
How would people who don’t volunteer to participate in recovery programs be dealt with, if, in fact, they were charged with harmful behavior? A community safety committee would be entrusted with responsibility to hold hearings when individuals or groups would be present if charged with abusing, endangering, or threatening others. During such hearings, individuals and groups could enlist advocates to help them present evidence as to whether or not the charges were truthful. A jury of peers would weigh the evidence. Again, the major thrust would be in the direction of healing, recovery, and community sustainability.
Theories recommending punishment and isolation as means to deter others from committing offenses would be abandoned.
Individuals identified as substance abusers who threaten or endanger others and who reuse to enroll in a rehabilitation program would be ordered to do so, at no financial cost to themselves or their family. If necessary, intervention teams would come to the home and escort the person to a detoxification center or a center to await joining a recovery program.
A substantial percentage of the current population of U.S. prisoners committed crimes related to money laundering, tax evasion, credit card fraud, and various other “paper crimes.” Again, recognizing the context of massive exploitation and fraud committed by elites who have commandeered inordinate incomes and luxuries at the expense of others, we would not pounce on those who committed lesser crimes but can’t afford highly paid legal assistants. We wouldn’t want to afflict them with punishments that have no relation whatsoever to rehabilitation. We certainly wouldn’t want to lesson the possibilities of those charged with paper crimes to pay just restitution. Counseling to help the person who has been proven guilty of a financial crime better understand his or her motivations, assistance in learning how to live with less and not feel driven to accumulate excess wealth, and an invitation to put fund raising skills to use in raising money for non-profit charitable organizations would be among the best ways to help a person who has committed a financial crime become reintegrated into the general community.
Some time away from one’s home might be required, but assuredly that time ought not be characterized by a setting which takes away every other right and freedom. The person would live in a community much like a college campus; a team of people would be charged with oversight of the offender’s future financial transactions until all involved were in agreement that the former offender would no longer scheme to rob other individuals or groups.
In the cases of people who have treated other people abusively, we again may need to contemplate removing the abuser from his or her intended victim. Suppose someone suffers from the disease of pedophilia. He or she should not be allowed to live or work with children. This wold mean removal from mainstream society. But it should not mean placement in a setting which lowers self-esteem, takes away almost every choice-making function, punishes every act of dissent or independence, and makes life so bland and uninteresting that the offender must struggle, every day, against an overwhelming desire to escape.
Where would a community removed from the mainstream exits? How would it be patrolled so that an offender wouldn’t attempt to escape? In the cases of serious abusers, those who have compulsively committed sexual abuse, or serial murderers, it may be necessary to find “island” communities which cold be visited by loved ones but would not have accessible transportation for offenders mandated to live within the island.
Every possible effort would be made to prevent smuggling weapons into these “island” areas.
Volunteers would be recruited to live and work in these communities as guides and counselors. The volunteers would be well educated. They would agree never to carry armaments and would understand, before signing up, that their choice to join the community would entail possible risks, including death. I am thinking of some of the people who have chosen to join peace teams and travel to war zones, unarmed, as prototypes for the sorts of people who would volunteer to work in one of the communities for abusers who are removed from mainstream society.
The island communities would be small, never risking becoming places that required bureaucracies to “process” the residents. Egalitarian community life would, as much as possible, characterize the economic, social and cultural patterns within these places. Authority would be earned by those who demonstrate the best leadership skills. If inhabitants of the community have grievances, these should be aired and communicated, beyond the “island,” so that exposure to the wider community would enable discovery of ways to heal the grievance.
In a relatively short span of time, since World War II, the Catholic Worker Movement has grown to include well over 100 houses of hospitality in the U.S. and other countries. These houses are dedicated to caring for the neediest people in our societies without imposing on them a set of expectations beyond several basic demands. Guests are treated with acceptance and generally the people maintaining the houses don’t try to “fix” the guests. However, they are not allowed to come into the house intoxicated and they can’t store, use or sell drugs or alcohol inside the house. Guests who steal from the house are generally asked to leave.
What strikes me as especially hopeful in this movement is the constant flow of young volunteers who are drawn to move into the communities, knowing that they will not be paid a salary or, in most cases, even a modest stipend. Many of the young volunteers work part time jobs to help cover household expenses. Each house has its own set of rules and routines. While Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement by starting Maryhouse in in New York City7, are regarded with great respect, the workers in today’s houses of hospitality generally subscribe to Day’s and Maurin’s recommendations about Christian anarchy. Youuwon’t find a hierarchy in the Catholic Worker movement. You will find tremendous dedication to “the further invention of nonviolence”–small and energetic groups of people are learning to live simply and to live more compatibly with Mother Earth. There are some of the most joyful and enjoyable people you could ever hope to encounter.
I include this description to indicate that it would be possible to find idealistic young people who would willingly become workers in benevolent communities designated to receive “guests” who have been mandated by another community to separate themselves from te wider society because they have caused serious harm.
The idealistic volunteers I’m thinking of would need preparation. Thorough grounding in conflict resolution and mediation skills, an understanding of community development, and cross- cultural sensitivities would be part of their internship and preparation periods.
Every community would establish agreed upon guidelines.
A person mandated to live in one of the island communities would no more expect to encounter a prison guard there than an employee turning up for work would expect to see a whip-bearing overseer on horseback. The days of prison guards functioning as human zookeepers would be a curiosity of the past.
For 12 years, I taught secondary school students in Chicago. Six of those years were spent at a Jesuit College Prep school what was one of the top 50 schools in the country. Many of the students were strongly motivated to follow the Jesuit motto of becoming “persons for others,” and, “to give and not count the cost.”
The high cost of tuition ($9,000 per year, currently), prompted many families, students and teachers to also see the school’s education as a down payment for eventual professional education which would enable the students to someday earn a high income in a prestigious profession.
Returning again to the need for teachers and students to help accomplish a tremendous shift in values, where in the U.S. and in other western countries, I want to stress the importance of awakening to a new social imagination that will mobilize young people to feel comfortable doing work they find meaningful, even if it doesn’t allow them to accumulate excess personal wealth.
Suppose that our future promising students could find rewards in being highly trained specialists who could design human communities for rehabilitation, recovery, ongoing assistance to “ex-offenders,” and, in extreme cases, maintenance of the “island” communities mentioned above.
Students who’ve enjoyed advantages in their upbringing would be prepared to answer a difficult question: Why would people who already have so much be entitled to get more?
The great crime of our time is that upwards of 30,000 children die every day, worldwide, from starvation. We don’t want to punish anyone for this crime. But we and the millions affected by a very blinded criminal justice system hunger for new vision, and we yearn for change.