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Pondering the Limits of Criminal Justice Reform

John LashOn Monday I spoke via Skype with a group of students enrolled at Georgetown University. Some friends of mine teach a class on social justice and conflict studies. Twice I have joined the class to discuss my own experiences with the criminal justice system, restorative justice, my current work, and any other insightful (and difficult) questions they come up with.

Several wondered how prison could be changed to address issues of safety and violence, and whether or not restorative responses still allowed for incarceration. These are interesting topics to me, and I am able to talk about them with ease, but a few questions left me pondering the limits of criminal justice reform. These were questions that addressed what I think of as structural issues.

For instance, why does the average prisoner have an elementary school reading level? Is he in prison because of that, or are people with that level of education more likely to be incarcerated? Why are African Americans disproportionately incarcerated? It is not because they are more likely to commit crimes. Even when the circumstances of a given crime and background are accounted for, they are more likely to be sent to prison and to receive longer sentences. The same is true for Latinos, poor people, Native Americans, and other traditionally disadvantaged and marginalized groups.

One of the greatest writers in the field of conflict studies, Johan Galtung, introduced the concept of structural violence in a 1969 article for the Journal of Peace Research. For Galtung, structural violence is an “avoidable impairment of human needs.” This definition includes a lot of “isms” including racism, classism, sexism, and others. It doesn't take a lot of investigation to see how these phenomena can be connected to the current system of justice.

Even if we were somehow able to create the perfect prison, with programs that are effective, safe living conditions, supports for maintaining family connection, and relevant educational classes, it still would not address the issues that lead to incarceration in the first place.

I don’t wish to ignore personal responsibility, but I also recognize that environment and other factors outside of the individuals control have an impact on their perception of choices and ability to transcend hardships. Consider a November 4th article in the New York Times entitled "After the Violence, The Rest of Their Lives".

The article tells the story of The Chicago Project, led by Northwestern University psychiatry and behavioral sciences professor Linda A. Teplin, a study of 1,800 youth who entered the juvenile justice system at an early age. The youth, interviewed between 1995 and 1998, have been tracked ever since.

Consider a few statistics from the study. Over 80 percent of the juveniles who enter the system early are gang members, 70 percent of the males have used a firearm (starting at an average age of 14), 20 percent of the participants on a given day are incarcerated, and 71 percent of the men and 59 percent of the women are unemployed. The youth surveyed in the study die, usually violently, at a rate three to five times as high as comparable residents of the county.

All of these statistics do not flow from personal choice, and to ignore that fact is to hide from reality. Do some individuals rise above the circumstances? Of course, but these exceptions to the rule, while admirable, do not excuse the rest of us from considering the realities of stark contrasts in equality, opportunity, and risk that exist between most Americans and those that live in the worst areas of the nation. Until these structural issues are fully faced and dealt with we will always have injustice, no matter how much we “improve” the criminal justice system.

Communities are Critical in Aiding Criminal Justice System, Experts Say

NEW YORK – Community was the word on everyone’s lips at the Symposium on Crime in America at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. More police engagement with the community is needed to win the war against gangs, and communities need to be more receptive to those returning from prison, according to experts speaking at the conference.

According to FBI data provided by Jeffrey Butts, Director of the John Jay Center on Research and Evaluation, violent crime arrests are at a 30-year low.

But "as violence has dropped," Butts said, "arrests for other crimes increased since the 1990s."

One reason may be that gangs are still a serious problem across the country and according to Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, gang violence has changed.

“It’s no longer about drugs,” said Beck. Today’s gang violence is territorial, he said, noting that only a small percentage of the 160 gang-related murders in 2011 had to do with drugs. He did say, however, that gangs are spreading out from Los Angeles.

“If you have Bloods and Crips [two prominent LA gangs] in your neighborhood, they came from LA,” he said.

Beck talked about a fundamental shift in how the LAPD approached the issue of gangs. He says police strategies of the last 30 years have been ineffective at curbing the spread of violence and fixing the root problems and what is needed is a better relationship between police and the community.

His wake-up call, he said, came the day he arrested the son of someone he had arrested years before.

As a response, Beck placed 50 specially-trained officers directly into troubled neighborhoods, allowing them to become a part of the community.

Connie Rice, co-director of the Los Angeles-based Advancement Project, echoed Beck’s call for change and community-based approaches to policing, making a comparison to the war on drugs.

“We’ve been stuck on stupid,” she said. “The only thing that was a bigger failure than the war on gangs was the war on drugs.”

Rice says Los Angeles’ new approach is innovative and a model for the rest of the country.

“Mass incarceration doesn’t work,” she added.

Donyee Bradley, a Gang Outreach Worker who grew up a gang member in Washington, D.C., said the most important thing for everyone working to improve communities and stop gang violence is to stay the course.

“An artist gets to see the finished product,” he said. “In what we do, we don’t get to see that.”

Speaking to the crowd, Bradley thanked the researchers at the college.

“Through your research, we are changing lives,” he said. “We are changing the mind sets of families and communities.”

But for many in the criminal justice system, incarceration is only the beginning. For convicted person’s, transition back into society is fraught with challenges, says Ann Jacobs, director of the John Jay Prisoner Re-Entry Institute.

“No one sitting in this room wants to be judged for the rest of our life on the worst decision we ever made,” she said.

But, she says, not enough is understood about re-entry.

“Twelve years ago the term re-entry didn’t exist and there was no body of research,” she said.

In Jacob’s view, every conviction becomes a life sentence because of the stigma society has placed on ex-offenders.

“The words ‘felon’ and ‘convict’ are labels we put on people for the rest of their lives,” she said. “Do we really think someone who is a former convict shouldn’t be a security guard at the Statue of Liberty?”

Most people who are convicted are not a public safety threat, said Margaret Love, a former pardon attorney for the United States Department of Justice.

“We even know how many people have misdemeanor convictions,” she said. “There are upwards of 65 million [people with convictions] and 92 million separate records of criminal convictions.”

She added, “It brings home how pervasive this problem has become. But dealing with the problem on a mass basis can ignore the human story.”

Former convicts are treated differently, said Sheila Rule, founder of the Think Outside the Cell Foundation, an organization providing education and personal development tools to those in prison, the formerly incarcerated and their families.

“This was a population who were demonized, stigmatized, marginalized and ignored,” she said. “It’s not that people oppose these men, women and children; they just don’t think about them.”

According to Love, there are more than 35,000 laws across the United States excluding former convicts from benefits.

“Today, a convicted status is the primary means, other than citizenship, of assigning legal status,” she said. “It is the one permissible basis for discrimination.”

As a response, Rule says Think Outside the Cell is starting an “End the Stigma” campaign.

“We have much work to do and it is not easy,” she said. “But it is critical.”