Recently, I was fortunate enough to spend a few days in Chicago for two conferences: Closing the Women’s Wealth Gap and the PolicyLink Equity Summit. The sessions were powerful and moving, and I left feeling overwhelmed by the amount of injustice all around us, and at the same time, inspired to get to work!
One of the sessions on restorative justice resonated with me the most. It may be because I just finished reading Color of Law by Richard Rothstein and The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, and was struck by the way that injustice and discrimination are braided into every structure of our society.
Today, there are 2.2 million people in our prison system, a 500% increase over the last 40 years -- far above any other country. It is not because of increased crime, as we might assume. Instead, it is due to harsher sentences and a for-profit prison system that benefits by getting more people in it (just let that disturbing fact sink in for a minute and think about what that means for our society).
It is impossible to ignore the racial disparity in the system when you consider that African American men are six times more likely (and Hispanic men twice as likely) to be incarcerated as white men for the same (or lesser) crimes. Once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted. Once convicted they face stricter sentences. Today, there are more African Americans in the prison system than were enslaved in 1850.
Our nation’s history has conditioned us to believe that people of color are more suspicious and dangerous. Just consider one recent example when two men were arrested for sitting in a Starbucks while they waited for their friend. I cannot count the number of times that I have sat in a place of business (without making a purchase) to wait for someone without as much as a questioning glance.
One of the stories shared during our conference session was of three teenagers, 15 years old, who took their parents’ car out joyriding without permission and were driving under the influence of alcohol. When they were pulled over by a police officer, they were brought home and given a proverbial slap on the wrist. Compare this to three other friends walking down the sidewalk. Police officers were called because of a “noise ordinance,” which is usually a small fine when your house party gets a little too loud. In this case, the three friends were arrested on $2,700 bail. The amount was impossible for them to pay and turned into jail time. If it isn't completely apparent, the first example was white girls and the second black boys. When you hear countless other cases like this, as I did that day, it is impossible not to feel outrage at our collective cognitive dissonance and colorblind denial that fuels such a system of injustice.
In our country’s history, every step towards equity and justice has been met with backlash and reconfiguration of oppression: Jim Crow laws in response to the abolition of slavery and mass incarceration in response to the Civil Rights Movement. Such systemic oppression has impacted communities of color and created generational trauma. On top of that, many low-income communities are struggling to find job opportunities with living wages that lift them out of poverty. And, we all know that when trauma and despair are not healed, they are passed along to others. But, it also disrupts neuro-development, which leads to things like behavioral issues and drug and alcohol abuse. It erodes connection to our authentic selves and creates a damaging belief of unworthiness.
With recidivism rates of over 60%, it is safe to say that our criminal justice system is failing. Once released, a person with a felony suffers from the stigma of a criminal record and struggles with a lack of economic security and mobility due to a lack of job and housing options. There is also a very real human cost to those families and communities broken by being torn apart, as well as to the mental well-being of police and prison guards who have to uphold this system.
The good news is that we have other options. The restorative justice model focuses on the humanity of both the victim and the perpetrator, using incarceration only as a final option. Through this model, the person who committed the crime has an opportunity to uncover and heal the trauma at the root of their behavior. S/he provides real accountability to the victim and to the community, something a jail cell could never offer. This process of healing also leads to a much lower rate of recidivism; lower than 12%!
Restorative justice is founded on the concept of “just law," which means “to make things whole.” It focuses on rehabilitation and restoration of the community when disconnection and harm occurs. “Unjust law” focuses on individual responsibility without understanding or healing the root cause. It is merely the processing of misery through punishment. In doing so, we are only replicating harm creating a ripple effect throughout our families, communities, and society at large. We also lose the opportunity for the person who commits the crime to be held accountable in a meaningful way that contributes to the community and prevents additional harm.
All of us are impacted by our inhumane criminal justice system in some way: lateral violence that keeps us all less safe, the loss of human potential that fuels our growth, unprocessed trauma that gets passed on and on. Imagine what is possible if we dismantled this prison industrial complex and employed a model that has been proven to transform lives and communities. Instead of spending the current 60 billion dollars a year to “process misery” with no return on investment, we could invest in innovative industries, new jobs, and better schools. People would have a real chance to break the chains of oppression and realize their dream of becoming business owners, teachers, scientists, and leaders of our future. But first, we will have to wake up to a massive for-profit structure, mostly kept out of the public eye. It will require an in-depth examination of the labels we put on people who commit a crime and the second-class status that defines the rest of their lives.
From behind the protective bubble of my white skin, I see a broken system that devalues human lives and tears communities apart. But, the reality is that I don’t ever have to worry that my children will serve time or life in prison for a petty crime because of the color of their skin or lack of access to money or support. As a mother, a neighbor, a fellow human, I just cannot be silent in the face of injustice. I want my kids to grow up in a country that learns how to really see one another, fosters healing and belonging, and builds thriving communities of all colors where every mother believes their children can grow up safely to reach their fullest potential.
“How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law.“ - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,“Letter from a Birmingham Jail