Prison Population Reduction Efforts Wise, Meritable

By Ryan Plesh

On Monday, more than 300 religious leaders from across the state presented an open letter to the government and people of Wisconsin calling for a dramatic reduction in the state prison population. The initiative, called the "11x15" campaign, is a nod to the dimensions of the standard prison cell they believe unjustly cages thousands and is being spearheaded by a group called WISDOM.

WISDOM is, by its own account, an umbrella organization composed of nine separate faith-based communities from around the state. WISDOM's mission is basically to unite people of faith so that they may stand together in combating social injustice.

The campaign aims to persuade Wisconsinites that a decrease in the prison population from 21,095 to 11,000 prisoners would be a good thing for the prisoners themselves and everyone else. Statistics from the Joint Finance Committee show that of the 21,095 current prisoners in the state, only 12,720 are violent offenders. That leaves just about 40 percent of the prison population as nonviolent offenders.

I don't even want to think about how many of those nonviolent offenders are imprisoned for petty drug charges; it's hard for me to imagine a more perverse way of handling a very personal issue like substance abuse than isolation and imprisonment.

Furthermore, the vast majority of nonviolent offenders, whatever their crime, do not need to be in prison if they are not a greater danger to society than anyone else is; you're either kidding yourself or you're very boring if you don't think you have any potential to ever be a danger to society.

Mohandas Gandhi famously said, "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind." Conversely, the St. Lunatic Nelly said, "If you take a life, you goin' lose yours too." I know Wisconsin does not practice capital punishment, but the same concept applies. This latter brand of justice seems to appeal to Americans, especially Texans, and it is not without merit. However, the former kind of justice is that which WISDOM, rightly, is seeking to advance.

Most people intuitively find the tit-for-tat nature of retributive justice compelling. It resonates with people because it has an air of fairness about it. We are taught from a young age that as members of society, our actions have consequences on other people's lives; if we violate their rights, we will be subject to punishment. This can be a powerful deterrent for crime and wrongdoing in general, and it may be the case that some criminals, in particular some violent offenders, just cannot be reformed. However, for every individual and society as a whole, restorative justice is a much better option than retributive.

The justice system in the United States is atrociously skewed against minorities and men. We Yankees are all too quick to thumb our noses at the South and their racial injustice without taking a look at our own failures. An analysis by Mother Jones magazine showed more than half of all prisoners in Wisconsin are black, compared to roughly six percent of the state's population. That is horrendous. There is almost certainly inherent bias against minorities built into the system by way of jury selection, judges, sentencing, ability to afford an attorney, etc.

Equally important, though, the conditions that force people into a life of crime need to be addressed. But they won't see great improvement any time soon. What we can change now, however, is how we deal with criminals once they have already been convicted. Isolating and imprisoning them will only serve to dehumanize them and make them bitter. Alternatives to incarceration such as victim-offender mediation, counseling and community service can help both the offender and the victim to move forward. Furthermore, it benefits society as a whole by reincorporating people ready and able to be good citizens, not to mention saving tax dollars. Gov. Scott Walker, we're looking at you.

The 300 religious leaders of WISDOM who are promoting the "11x15" campaign are an inspiration. It is all too easy for people, myself included, to denigrate organized religion when we see its proponents savagely beating their drums over non-issues like homosexuality, contraceptives and evolution. Amid the melee it is easy to forget about all the positive things churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious institutions do for their communities. The WISDOM 300 leaders are a wonderful example of the positive role religious leaders can play with a little clarity of purpose.

Ryan Plesh ( is a senior majoring in philosophy and physics.

This piece first appeared in The Badger Herald:

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