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Seven Ways to Fix the Criminal Justice System

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Our present methods of dealing with criminals have not made society safer and crime-free, rather they have made the problems worse. A leading American prison reform activist tells what we can do reverse this trend.

by Bo Lozoff 

How can we reduce the frightening levels of crime and violence that plague out society today? The usual answer from politicians and the media is that we have to be tougher on crime. If we had the guts to crack down like, say, those Singaporeans, then we'd straighten this country out.

But that's just a myth, and a dangerous one, because it is actually preventing us from solving the crime problem. Here's the reality: America now locks up prisoners at a rate five times greater than most industrialized nations, a rate of incarceration second only to Russia. The number of inmates in state and federal prisons has more than quadrupled, from fewer than 200,000 in 1970 to 948,000 in 1993. Prisoners currently sleep on floors, in tents, in converted broom closets and gymnasiums, or in double or triple bunks in cells that were designed for one inmate. I have visited about 500 prisons and, I can tell you, they are not country clubs (though they certainly are a luxury item: The average new prison cell costs $53,100 to construct). For the most part, they are terrifying and miserable places that will seem as shameful to us in a hundred years as the infamous nineteenth-century "snake-pit" insane asylums seem to us today.

Approximately 240,000 brutal rapes occur in our prison system each year, and most of the victims are young, nonviolent male inmates, many of them teen-age first offenders. After being raped, or "punked out," many of these young men are forced to shave their body hair and dress effeminately so they can be sold among "roosters" as sexual slaves for packs of cigarettes. This sometimes continues for the entire length of their incarceration. They are traumatized beyond imagination. Michael Fay's caning in Singapore was child's play compared to the reception he would have had in nearly any state prison in America. We are not soft on criminals.

The above, however, should not lead you to believe that our prisons are teeming with violent, dangerous people. Just the opposite: More than half of all US prisoners are serving time for non-violent offenses. Please let that sink in, because it's probably not the image you've received from the media. Instead, we've been led to imagine a legion of dangerous criminals cleverly plotting to get out and hurt us again. The truth is that most prison inmates are confused, disorganized, and often pathetic individuals who would love to turn their lives around if given a realistic chance. Unfortunately many of those nonviolent offenders will no longer he nonviolent by the time they leave prison.

But perhaps the most pervasive myth distorting our view of criminal justice is that increasing arrests and imprisonment is an effective strategy for reducing crime. Again, here's the shocking reality: The rate of violent crime hasn't significantly increased or decreased in the past fifteen years. And yet, the prison population in the US more than doubled during the l980s. What's more, the threat of prison does not seem to deter criminal behavior. Around 62 percent of all prison inmates nationwide are arrested again within three years. Prisons are not scaring criminals away from crime; they are incapacitating them so they are hardly fit for anything else.

In other words, the criminal justice system that we're paying for so dearly simply isn't working. And yet we keep on throwing more money into it. So how do we start fixing what's broken? Here are seven places to begin:

Learn to recognize the influence of socially sanctioned hatred.

What I mean by socially sanctioned hatred is simple: We human beings seem to have a built-in temptation to objectify other groups of people in order to feel superior to them or to find a scapegoat for all our problems. It's reflected in language, in words like "nigger," "Faggot," "slant-eyes," "gook," and so on. Certainly, among most of us, that kind of prejudicial speech is not acceptable. And yet, among decent people, from liberal to conservative, it is still socially acceptable to call criminals "scum," "sleaze bags," or "animals." We hear that one demented soul kidnapped and killed a little girl, and a few weeks later, when a teenager steals our car radio, we are ready to strap the two of them together in the gas chamber. "I'm sick of these animals," we say. "They're all alike. Let them fry."

People who break the law are not all alike. They are an enormously diverse group of human beings.

Make drugs a public health problem instead of a criminal justice problem.

Drug cases are clogging our nation's prisons. Some 61 percent of federal prison inmates are there for drug offenses, up from 18 percent in 1980. And all this incarceration is doing nothing to solve the drug problem. Many wardens, judges, and other officials know this, but it has become political suicide to discuss decriminalization.

We need to insist upon a more mature dialogue about the drug problem. Keep in mind that the high-level drug dealers aren't cluttering up our prisons; they're too rich and smart to get caught. They hire addicts or kids, sometimes as young as eleven or twelve, to take most of the risks that result in confinement.

But it's not the dealers who create the drug problem anyway. Among the poor, drugs are a problem of alienation and isolation, of feeling unknown, unimportant, powerless, and hopeless. Among the affluent, they are an attempt to keep up with or escape from an insanely frenzied lifestyle that has almost nothing to do with simple human joys such as friendship or hearing the birds sing.

We need to address these issues in ourselves, our families, and our communities. At the same time, we must press for changes in drug laws. I'm not advocating that we "legalize" all drugs, because it's not that simple. But we do have to "decriminalize" their use, treating the problem as the public-health issue it is. Doing so would have tremendous benefits. Without drug offenders, our prisons would have more than enough room to hold all the dangerous criminals. As a result, we wouldn't need to build a single new prison, saving us some $5 billion a year. And if we spent a fraction of that money on rehabilitation centers and community revitalization programs, we'd begin to put drug dealers out of business in the only way that will last -by drying up their market.

Separate violent and nonviolent offenders right from the start.

It's inconceivable that we routinely dump nonviolent offenders in prison cells with violent ones, even in local jails and holding tanks. What are we thinking? I know one fellow who was arrested for participating in a Quaker peace vigil and was jailed in lieu of paying a ten-dollar fine. In a forty-eight- hour period, he was savagely raped and traded back and forth among more than fifty violent prisoners. That was twenty years ago, and since then he has had years of therapy, and yet he has never recovered emotionally. His entire life still centers around the decision of one prison superintendent to place him in a violent cellblock in order to "teach him a lesson."

Most nonviolent offenders do in fact learn a lesson: how to be violent. Ironically; we spend an average of $20,000 per year, per inmate, teaching them this. For less than that we could be sending every nonviolent offender to college.

None of us, including prison staff, should accept violence as a fact of prison life, and it would be easy not to. We could designate certain facilities as zero-violence areas and allow inmates to live there as long as they don't commit-or even threaten to commit-a single violent act. The great majority of prisoners would sign up for such a place, I can assure you. Only about 10 percent of the prison population sets the terrorist tone for most institutions, and they are able to do that because the administration gives no support to the 90 percent of inmates who just want to do their time, improve themselves in some way, and get out alive.

To make matters worse, in most prisons when an inmate is threatened he or she is the one who gets locked up in a little cell for twenty-four hours a day, while those doing the threatening remain in the open population. We must revise this practice and begin to expect prisoners to be nonviolent. And we need to support them in this by offering conflict-resolution trainings such as the 'Alternatives to Violence" programs currently being conducted by and for convicts around the country. Such trainings should be required for all prisoners and staff.

Regain compassion and respect for those who wrong us.

Over the past twenty years, we have increasingly legitimized cruelty and callousness in response to the cruelty and callousness of criminals. And with the recent elections and new crime bills, we are rushing even further down this low road. In a number of prisons across the country we have reduced or eliminated the opportunity for inmates to earn college degrees, clamped down on family visits, and restricted access to books and magazines. And now there is even a growing public sentiment to strip prisons of televisions and exercise facilities. It's as if we want to make sure inmates are miserable every second of the day. We no longer want them to get their lives together. We just want them to suffer In the long run, however, this approach will not make us happy, nor will it keep our children safe from crime. In fact, as I see it, this vengeful attitude may actually be leading our young people toward violence. The peak age for violent crime in America is now eighteen, and it's edging downward every year. Our children sense that it's all right to be mean and violent toward people they don't like. They are not learning compassion or reconciliation. Don't expect a youngster to be able to master the difference between an enemy you define and an enemy he or she defines.

Taking the "high road" does not mean being lenient toward criminals. I'm certainly not advocating that we open the prison doors and let everybody out. In fact, I feel that there are many types of behavior that can cause a person to yield his or her right to stay in free society. But we need to work intensively with people who break the law; we have to structure our responses in ways that show them that they have value, that we believe in them, and that we need them. We must relegate prison to the status of last resort after all other measures have failed.

Allow for transformation, not merely rehabilitation.

Our ideas of rehabilitation usually revolve around education, job skills, and counseling. But many ex-cons have told me they left prison merely better-educated and -skilled criminals. Until they felt their connection and value to others, nothing ever reached into their hearts. Take this letter from a former inmate, for example:

Dear Bo, Man, I went through a time of hating you and Sita before I came to my senses. Let me explain: When you met me in prison and looked into my eyes, you didn't buy the evil son of a bitch that I portrayed to the world. I believed it myself. But you two looked at me with respect. Man, I hated your guts for that. I'm serious, I have never felt a worse punishment than your respect. Cops and cons could beat on me all day long, I was used to that from the time I was a kid But for somebody to see the good in me--man, that was unbearable. It took a long time, but it finally wore me down and I had to admit that I'm basically a good person. I've been out for three years now. Not even close to a life of crime anymore. Thanks seems puny but thanks.

If we forget that in every criminal there is a potential saint, we are dishonoring all of the great spiritual traditions. Saul of Tarsus persecuted and killed Christians before becoming Saint Paul, author of much of the New Testament. Valmiki, the revealer of the Ramayana, was a highwayman, a robber, and a murderer. Milarepa, one of the greatest Tibetan Buddhist gurus, killed thirty- seven people before he became a saint. Moses, who led the Jews out of bondage in Egypt, began his spiritual career by killing an Egyptian. If we forget that Charles Manson is capable of transformation, that doesn't reveal our lack of confidence in Manson, it shows our lack of confidence in our own scriptures. We must remember that even the worst of us can change.

Over the past twenty years I've had the privilege of knowing thousands of people who did horrible things and yet were able to transform their lives. They may not have become saints, but I have seen murderous rage gradually humbled into compassion, lifelong racial bigotry replaced by true brotherhood, and chronic selfishness transformed into committed altruism. The promises of every great spiritual tradition are indeed true: Our deepest nature is good, not evil.

Join and support the restorative justice movement.

For decades our justice system has been run according to the tenets of "retributive justice," a model based on exile and hatred. "Restorative justice" is a far more promising approach. This model holds that when a crime occurs, there's an injury to the community; and that injury needs to be healed. Restorative justice tries to bring the offender back into the community; if at all possible, rather than closing him out.

Whereas retributive justice immediately says "Get the hell out of here!" when someone commits a crime, restorative justice says "Hey, get back in here! What are you doing that for? Don't you know we need you as one of the good people in this community? What would your mama think?" It's an entirely opposite approach, one that, I think, would result in stronger and safer communities.

I'm not saying that every offender is ready to be transformed into a good neighbor. Advocates of restorative justice are not naive. Sadly, prisons may be a necessary part of a restorative justice system. But even so, prisons can be environments that maximize opportunities for the inmates to become decent and caring human beings.

One of the more powerful initiatives within the restorative justice movement is the creation of victim-offender reconciliation programs (VORPs), which bring offenders and victims face to face. When offenders come out of those meetings you hear them say things like: "I feel so ashamed now of what I did, because I never realized how much I affected someone else's life," or "I never meant to do that. I was just being selfish." Meanwhile, some of the classic responses from victims are: "I really wanted to go in there hating those guys but I discovered they're just people. They really weren't as bad as I thought they'd be," or "I was expecting to see someone evil, and in- stead I saw somebody stupid." Such victim-offender interaction humanizes both the injury and the healing process.

What can you do? If you become the victim of a crime, insist upon meeting your assailant. Insist upon being involved with the process of his or her restoration. Join or create a VORP in your community. Tour your local jail or prison to see first-hand what your taxes pay for. Go in with a church group or civic group to meet inmates. Become a pen pal to a prisoner who is seeking to change his or her life. Talk to your friends and colleagues about employing ex-cons (in nationwide surveys, most employers admit they won't hire a person with a criminal record, so where are they supposed to work?). Please reclaim your power and your responsibility, because the retributive system you have deferred to is not serving your best interests.

Take the issue of crime and punishment personally.

I first became an activist in the '6Os during the civil rights movement in the South and, I can tell you, standing up against the Klan was not the hardest stuff. Nearly everybody was against the Klan. The activism that took the most courage was raising the consciousness of our own friends and families. The same goes for our attitudes toward prisoners today. If somebody at your workplace says "I'm glad they fried that animal," you have to have the guts to say "Come on, Bob, that's beneath you to talk like that." And you have to be willing to be mocked as a bleeding-heart liberal for doing so.

Just as with civil rights, and women's rights, we have to recognize that the national shame over our prison system is affecting us all, and it's getting worse every day. This doesn't mean that we all have to become crusaders for prison reform, but we do have to be more mindful of what we say and who and what we vote for.

We have to realize that we are all a part of this problem. If you vote, if you pay taxes, if you are afraid to walk alone at night, you are already involved. And so we all must make real changes-not just political ones, but also in our personal attitudes and lifestyles.


Bo Lozoff is a director of the Human Kindness Foundation and through its Prison Ashram Project has been corresponding with prisoners and conducting workshops in prisons for more than twenty years.


This article was published in New Renaissance, Vol.5 No. 3. The article originally appeared in The New Age Journal (342 Western Av., Brighton, MA USA) and is reprinted here with the permission of the author. Copyright, Bo Lozoff
 

 
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