THOUGHTS ON OUR CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM

I will be participating in a public forum on Thursday, July 23rd, from 6 to 8 PM, at Temple Baptist Church on King’s Lane.  The subject of the forum is “criminal justice,” and I will have 2 minutes to share my thoughts on the topic.  This is a vast, complex topic, and I don’t think I could “do justice to it” in just two minutes, so here is an extended version of my view of our criminal justice system. I could just about write a book, but this will have to do for now!

There is so much that is so broken about our so-called criminal justice system that it is hard to know where to begin. Here are some topic sentences and opening paragraphs.

There is the adversarial system under which it operates, which creates prosecutors for whom winning the case and putting somebody in jail is more important than finding out what really happened and why, and genuinely “doing justice” to the situation.

There is the way our legal system is tilted in favor of protecting the privileged and their privileges, including their property, which results in many more poor people going to jail than wealthy people, even when they have engaged in the same misbehavior, and there is the tendency to let the wealthy off more lightly for doing worse things than poor people are even capable of.  How many members of the American underclass are serving life sentences on “three strikes” convictions for petty theft? Thousands.   How many bankers are serving long sentences for the theft of billions of dollars that led to the economic crash of 2008?  None.

It almost goes without saying at this point that our “criminal justice system” exhibits a strong bias against people of color, who are much more likely to be jailed than European-Americans who commit the same crime, and that this bias extends from the courtroom to the street, where police repeatedly mistreat or even kill African-Americans over minor offences. This

clearly a burglar, in the eyes of his own neighbors

clearly a burglar, in the eyes of his own neighbors

danger is not confined to young African-Americans, as Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates discovered when he was arrested for “disorderly conduct” when police came to investigate a report that he was “breaking and entering” his’ own home.

But the culture of police violence can also infect African-Americans, as we saw in Baltimore, where three of the six police officers indicted for Freddie Gray’s murder were African-American.  This isn’t just a question of racial bias.  It’s about domination, alienation, and the failure of compassion.

And, speaking of the domination, alienation, and the failure of compassion, there is the fact that “serving” jail time serves no one–it is no help to the criminal, the victims (if any), or the general public.  Prisoners are, more often than not, neglected and abused, and then returned to society in even worse shape than when they started. Even if someone who is arrested avoids a jail sentence, the probation experience seems designed to trip people up, not to rehabilitate them.

I also see “criminal behavior” in the context of our society and its values.  Our society’s values are predominantly “economic.”  Whatever makes the most money in the shortest time is the highest good.  Perhaps that explains why bankers who steal billions get to walk away scot-free. Due to these values, it doesn’t matter if millions of people lose their jobs and all hope of a job, as long as corporations are making money.  Unemployed workers are “an externality” to these corporations, as they say in business-speak, or, in plain English, “somebody else’s problem.”

Some people like to venerate the wealthy as “job creators,” but the truth is that CEOs receive more accolades (and raises) for cutting jobs (and costs) than they do for creating jobs.  These CEOs have pushed American workers to be more and more efficient, meaning that fewer and fewer workers are needed, while those workers are paid less and less.  I think it is important to take this into account when looking at our criminal justice system.  Our society creates desperate people, then jails them for taking desperate measures.  Here in “the land of the free,” we have more people in jail than any other country in the world.  We have more prisons than colleges. What does that say about our national priorities?

Similarly, the failure of our schools is not about incompetent teachers and administrators.  It is not about curriculum, or how the curriculum is presented, or whether the schools are public, private, or charter.  Our schools are failing because our children look at the society they are entering with the fresh eyes of youth and see that there is little or nothing offered to them.  Trying for a college degree may offer substantial rewards, or it may just as easily result in a lifetime burdened with crippling, unrepayable debt, and even “a successful career” may mean decades of doing something meaningless or  downright soul-killing.  Why bother trying?  So the kids rebel, which is some of why many of our schools are becoming more prison-like, and why there is so much talk of “the school-to-prison pipeline.”

In the face of such systemic, national-scale problems, too big to solve here in Nashville, are there things we can do in Nashville do that will make a difference?

Fortunately, the answer is, “Yes, there is a lot we can do.”

At what you could call “ground level,” we could institute genuine “community policing.”  In small towns, police are frequently members of the community where they work.  They may have grown up in that town.  They work in a place where they know the people and the people know them, and they are responsible for their actions to people they know. We can institute something similar in Nashville by, first, assigning police officers to a specific neighborhood and making them accountable to a neighborhood council, and, second, by offering them incentives to move into the neighborhood they patrol, so that their lives are intertwined with that neighborhood and its inhabitants.  This approach would help cut the racial bias out of Nashville’s policing, which demonstrates disproportionate stops, arrests, and convictions of African-American citizens.

Nashville’s police should view themselves as peace officers.  Arrests and violence should be peaceofficerviewed as the very last resort. They should be trained in conflict resolution and non-violent intervention, and learn to recognize and deal with their own racial and gender biases.  We, their employers, should take good care of them so they don’t burn out.  They are doing a difficult job on our behalf.

At the court level, the Victim-Offender Reconciliation Project and several other programs that substitute mediation and making amends to the victims for trials and jail time are already in place in Nashville, and could easily be expanded to make what is known as “Restorative Justice”  the norm and not the exception in Nashville.  The basic concept behind all these programs is, in the words of The Restorative Justice Foundation, that

Restorative justice is a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused or revealed by criminal behaviour. It is best accomplished through cooperative processes that include all stakeholders…..

Practices and programs reflecting restorative purposes will respond to crime by:

  1. identifying and taking steps to repair harm,
  2. involving all  stakeholders, and
  3. transforming the traditional relationship between communities and their governments in responding to crime.

Three principles form the foundation for restorative justice:

  1. Justice requires that we work to restore those who have been injured.
  2. Those most directly involved and affected by crime should have the opportunity to participate fully in the response if they wish.
  3. Government’s role is to preserve a just public order, and the community’s is to build and maintain a just peace.


Restorative programs are characterized by four key values:

  1. Encounter:  Create opportunities for victims, offenders and community members who want to do so to meet to discuss the crime and its aftermath
  2. Amends:  Expect offenders to take steps to repair the harm they have caused
  3. Reintegration:  Seek to restore victims and offenders  to whole, contributing members of society
  4. Inclusion:  Provide opportunities for parties with a stake in a specific crime to participate in its resolution

This approach to “crime,” instead of a prosecutorial approach, would create a greater sense of community, instead of destroying community by jailing its members.

rj-typology-450w

So, perhaps we can cut the number of people we imprison through this approach.  Meanwhile, there are plenty of people in prison in Nashville right now.  What can we do to help them become better, rather than worse, citizens while they are there?

We can make sure that prisoners have access to programs that teach them employment skills and life skills, classes to broaden their education, and whatever services they may need to heal any personal wounds they may have.

And, when they get out of prison, we can do our best to see that they are freed into a society that has a place for them.  One way to do this would be to create a vibrant network of locally oriented, worker-owned businesses.  This is not just a concept.  This is a program that has been put into place with great success across the country and around the world.  We can do this in Nashville.

I’ve written elsewhere about the virtues of worker-owned co-ops, so here’s the short version:  having an ownership stake in the business does wonders for employee morale.  Working for a business that exists to provide a needed community service and provide a decent living to members of that community is a win-win-win situation.  The owner-employees win, because they are making a living wage and are in control of their lives.  Customers win, because happy employees do quality work.  And the community wins, because the money the business generates stays in the community and is spread widely around the community instead of being concentrated in the hands of a single owner.

So, there are simple, doable ways we can improve the culture of our police force, our judicial system, and our social structure that could make a huge difference in not just the criminal justice system in Nashville, but the whole tone of the city.  What I am proposing is not a path to paradise.  There will still be tragedies and injustices, but we can meet them with compassion and understanding, and make them much more the exception than the rule. We can make it better–yes, we can.

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About brothermartin

i am an unrepentant hippie a born-again Buddhist an activist whose concerns span social justice, economic justice,ecology, climate change, peak oil, and how to break open America's fatally flawed two-party system an ecstatic musician a good listener a slow talker a great-grandfather deeply concerned about the fate of the world
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