Saturday, May 28, 2016

Profitable Punishment or People and Preventive Rehabillitation--One Man's Journey

Head over heels in my last two decades of ministry, I simply had no time to give--until I met Jim! Hearing Jim’s concepts convicted me! I became a volunteer Case Worker with juveniles in this new Victim and Offender Reconciliation Program, (VORP) and was soon negotiating consensual agreements between first-time offenders and their victims.

I soon found resolving issues of restitution taxing but satisfying. I was making a difference preventing more serious legal confrontations, reducing the resulting socio-economic costs for all concerned, and helping potentially problem individuals become productive individuals.

This outside-the-box effort of going beyond the norm quickly became several of my final years of pastoral ministry invested as a volunteer in court-mandated efforts that were making a significant difference in people’s lives, and especially young first time offenders.

When a new State-directed Youth Program instituted a new Work Release Program and changed our penal code, they created a new level of for-pay State jobs supervising in-house inmates and assimilating the administrative essentials of our victim and offender program.

I continued to pursue my church ministry. I was, however, increasingly troubled by a revamped Juvenile Justice System that appeared to value profit more than people. The State Department of Corrections (DOC) continued its court-mandated efforts with young, first-time offenders, but without the frequent and effective reconciliation resulting between offenders and victims as happened with Vorp.

No longer seeking to bring about some kind of resolution via restitution, new State efforts lacked any opportunity for forgiveness and neither offered nor achieved any of the essential moral-ethical character-building qualities affirmed by VORP. Local rehabilitation efforts consequently deviated and redefined downward.

In the meantime, national efforts redefined America’s Drug War as “the major problem” and reinforced “get tough” policing! Punishing bad behavior sounded good and showed social accountability; it seemed. Yet as I watched crime prevention become a secondary issue, new questions abounded.      

The new public focus on “making criminals pay for their crimes.”1 sounded good until I discovered social scientists responding to some of my questions. Hosea Anderson described “the hopelessness and alienation” felt by young inner-city black men “largely as a result of endemic joblessness and persistent racism.” He argued that it fueled “the violence they engage in” and further confirmed “the negative feelings many whites and some middle-class blacks harbor toward the ghetto poor.”

Anderson insisted it legitimated the code of the street “in the eyes of many young blacks.” He concluded “attitudes on both sides will become increasingly entrenched, and the violence which claims victims black and white, poor and affluent, will only increase”2 and  further expose “the depth of racial bias in the system.”

Anderson’s writings only added to my personal experiences of visiting deep inside the cavernous depths behind electronic gates, in maximum-security facilities like Joliet where residents did “hard time.” I knew the difficulty of working with prisoners. I understood some Correctional Professionals were helpful while others remained quite calloused.

My visits included converted murderers and multiple offenders. I had “my experiences” of being “conned” by brutal sex offenders and of befriending former pastoral-peers. I corresponded with parishioner-related inmates. I understood that prison served a useful purpose for some. On the other hand, I found it of little value to others; and, at times I felt the isolation some churches communicated to prisoners.

I knew inmates who had become solid “Christians” for whom further punishment held no redemptive value. I observed God’s transforming grace in prisoner’s lives first hand. I also felt the deep disappointment of seeing prisoners executed in spite of compelling evidence to the contrary, their pleas for commutation rejected. Prisoners like Karla Faye Tucker brought tidal-waves of public opinion from politicians and citizens alike, much of which seemed more vindictive to me than helpful.

I listened to politicians promise tougher sentencing guidelines with expanded prisoner spaces, who also voted to reduce preventive-rehabilitation funds. I watched fear, ignorance, and pressure overwhelm the public and ignore a loving God that best reveals the Christian faith.

Jesus transformed the cross into a purposeful symbol for defining faith. He defended the vertical relationship that loves God above all else and makes it a priority. He emphasized the horizontal relationships of loving our neighbors as ourselves as the other side of this two-sided Gospel coin. Giving as example, Jesus used the Good Samaritan to express the ideal expression of this horizontal relationship (Luke 10:27). Consequently, I conclude that we must focus on prevention more than punishment if we correct our badly flawed criminal justice system.

Faith supports victim’s rights while demanding that we balance punishment without surrendering to “hate hysteria”. Economic stewardship and sound gospel each call for better balance between cultural trash bins called prisons and preventive programs that uplift people.

A Michigan Department of Management and Budget spokesman praised a nearby city for being five-hundred jobs richer because they offered “good paying jobs” at a local prison facility. He acknowledged a proposal to add 2,500 new beds and concluded, “That’s good for the state and for the taxpayers” (emphasis added). Simultaneously, a local reporter described abused prisoners in a privatized jail that prompted officials in still another state to stop renting beds from the first state.

Making programs pay for themselves is neither new nor unreasonable, but it challenges the theoretical purpose of the justice system!  We must decide whether our primary goal is to punish people and make money, or to rehabilitate people and build society.

Many tax payers appear more interested in profit than in people, but how does that fulfill our social obligation? With State Corrections spending “$130 million a year employing 2,500 people in one system alone, and adding another $20 million in payroll when the next new multi-security prison opens,” where will it end? 

Whatever one’s belief, behavior best tells the story. An alert editor consequently warned local readers, “We’d like to see the public’s money put to more constructive use, by shaping people’s lives for the better, and providing the same positive choices for everyone.”

I pray “God bless that editor!” Author Jerome Miller documented a criminal justice system that alienates and socially destabilizes our society. Demands for arrest, jail, conviction, and imprisonment, frequently create more problems than they solve. Theoretically, everyone believes in personal accountability, but that suggests the public must become as accountable for the economy of human lives as for the criminals it catches and condemns.

The 1980’s “get tough” politics increased federal, state and local expenditures for police 416%, for courts 585%, for prosecution and legal services 1,019%, for legal defense, 1,255%, and for Corrections a whopping 990%. It punished more while preventing less.4  And contrary to many of my white peers, 76% of illicit drug users came from the white majority, and only 14% from the Black Community, with 8% from the Hispanic Community. Most incarcerated inmates were admittedly from poor and minority communities.
The public sector railed thoughtlessly against jobless minorities, lazy drug-abusing criminals, and the abuse of sex for creating babies with the help of tax dollars. Most agreed the Welfare System needed reforming, but contrary to fact, public awareness perceived most welfare clients as minority or poor rather than white. Welfare has now been constructively reformed, but little else has changed.

The Criminal Justice System still focuses on criminalizing what it cannot control by building more prisons. It punishes people more than it rehabilitates. It clones criminals, and graduates some with magna cum laude skills in crime, as recidivism shuttles inmates in and out of the revolving doors of prison. This maintains a system that protects itself but mostly fails to assist inmates in building new and better lives.

So … “When do we quit criminalizing what we cannot control?” When do we reform our ineffective prison system? When will we do as much prevention as we do punishment? When will we value inmate education as much as inmate-incarceration? When will we show as much concern for people as we do for profitable punishment?
Restore the Family Bible 

Our current focus on punishment recalls that old Frank and Earnest cartoon in which Frank concludes, “Not only is Ernie going nowhere fast, but he knows a shortcut.” Our short cut to profitable punishment takes us nowhere—in a hurry. In addition, it adds to the cost of more incarcerations; and that is not only poor economics but a worthless gospel!

Balancing people and prevention with punishment and profit calls for a change of heart. A change of heart would invigorate the church and help to restore established family values and a new public trust.
               1 Jerome G. Miller, Search and Destroy. (Cambridge/N.Y.: Cambridge Press, 1996), p. 81. 
               2 Miller, p. 97. 
               3 Karen Motley, Battle Creek, MI. “Enquirer News,” 2-10-98). 
               4 Miller, p. 2.

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