A Culture of Practice Based in Principle

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It somehow doesn’t surprise me that many of our practices in Restorative Justice have come to us from New Zealand. Within days of the recent terror attack in Christchurch, the nation had acted on gun laws. What this tells me is that there is some connection between a moral and political will there that is broadly lacking in our own culture and society. MacRae and Zehr talk about using Family Group Conferencing for Restorative Justice in “serious and complicated cases, and the power of practice based in principle.” This last part is what I have struggled with since coming to seminary: do we really have a culture of “practice based in principle” in the US right now? We have cultures of practice based in principle, but I think, especially where it counts, they are the exception.

NZ passed their landmark Children, Young Persons, and Their Families Act with provisions for FGC in 1989. In the US today we not only incarcerate youth (unsurprisingly: disproportionately black youth) in staggering numbers, many in adult facilities, but, according to the Sentencing Project, only 21 states (and the District of Columbia) “do not have any prisoners serving life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles, either due to laws prohibiting the sentence or because there are no individuals serving the sentence at this time.” A majority of states still allow the sentence, with 3 — Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Louisiana — accounting for nearly 2/3 of all JLWOP sentences.)

We could not be further from NZ on this.

I was reading this great article about African Prisons Project from ideas.TED.com. The program, founded in 2007 by then-law student (now a barrister in the UK), Alexander McLean, provides “high-quality legal advice, training, and education to those living and working in prison” across Kenya and Uganda. Through highly structured training programs, legal support services and “empowering Changemakers” in the short-, medium- and long-term, APP seeks to “place the power of the law into the hands of the poor, enabling them to make, shape and implement the law.” It’s pretty incredible, transformative stuff, and not just in theory.

So I’m reading about this and I come across this quote from John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor Baz Dreisinger, author of Incarceration Nations:

Certainly in the US but also from what I’ve seen globally, most prisoners weren’t given adequate educational opportunities to begin with. The most fundamental reason why a society needs to give education to people in prison is because it failed them in the first place…. It’s a moral issue at heart, but it also makes sense economically, with numerous studies that show how it’s cheaper to educate than to incarcerate. If we don’t want to keep recycling people into and out of an expensive system, then education is key to reducing the recidivism rate.

I agree with all that, but it was the last sentence that caught me. Who is the “we” there? I think Dreisinger probably means, “we” as in “society”. But there are plenty of stakeholders in the current system and society who clearly do want to recycle people (mostly people of color) into and out of this system, and that’s the piece we need to reckon with.

The truth is: the economics can work for the people who need the economics to work, not only for the profits but also the perpetuation of white power. But the profits are there. From the local economies that are conned into hosting prisons, to the corporations and private contractors who build, maintain, and provide services to them and the businesses that use cheap (or in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, and Texas: free) prison labor. Those numbers are great for business!

So are we being disingenuous or credulous when we make arguments about the “inefficiency” of slavery for the slavers? Or about the cost, which society, not the slavers, bear? Michelle Alexander talks about the need for a “great awakening” — not to the facts, which we possess — but to the evil to which we’re a party. The arguments against mass incarceration that focus on economics seem laughable, based on the outrageous lie that the economy is supposed to function for all of us, that vast sectors of the economy that enrich the few don’t actually flourish on widespread poverty, oppression and racial inequity. The Slave economy of the American South worked very well for slaveholders:

by 1860, there were more millionaires (slaveholders all) living in the lower Mississippi Valley than anywhere else in the United States. In the same year, the nearly 4 million American slaves were worth some $3.5 billion, making them the largest single financial asset in the entire U.S. economy, worth more than all manufacturing and railroads combined.

Why do we continue to pretend otherwise? This is not a rhetorical question. Treating it as such is a kind of compound cynicism. If we want to create a culture of practice based in principle, to re-establish some connection between a moral and political will, we have to keep speaking our principled truth, explicitly, in a loud, clear, prophetic voice. The economic argument is not going to win this one.

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