Prison Reform: Healing not Punishment

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the prisoner worries about a...

Fifteen days after his inauguration, Pope Francis bent to wash and kiss the feet of imprisoned Italians. These were criminals but the Pope demonstrated mercy rather than judgment. It is an image that is ingrained in my mind as one that should inspire a new way of solving the problem of America's prison empire.

President Obama and Congress are making cautious first forays into the realm of legislative changes, tapping into the flexibility inherent in our democratic process to repair the destruction of our Civil War on Drugs. In 2014, the United States Sentencing Commission announced palliative changes toward reducing prison costs and populations by easing sentencing guidelines and allowing the reduction of sentences for certain drug offenders. I say palliative because, in the words of the Commission, the net effect "could allow more than 40,000 prisoners to be eligible for reductions in their sentences and could save close to 80,000 prison bed years over time." True, this is a start. But--80,000 when we have more than two million Americans living behind the razor wire? Is this the best we can do?

No. Meaningful change cannot occur taking these kinds of baby steps. Nor can we fix this problem without putting mercy first.

Critics will object that law-abiding citizens themselves will be at the mercy of criminals if we put compassion at the core of our criminal justice system. Granted, safety must always be of paramount concern. The error made by institutionalizing crime-and-punishment is that we know better. Modern man understands that retribution and punishment are not effective.

Three areas of evidence argue for compassion: history; research; and the intangible essence of the human heart.

Historically, the original purpose of law was to resolve arguments that arose with the formation of societies. Lawyers and judges were considered specialists whose job was to move both sides toward fairness and resolution. Thus, they served as agents of healing. Law was intended to function as a forum for arriving at long-lasting remediation for victims, for perpetrators, and for society as a whole. We can get back to that healing philosophy of law by putting mercy first.

Research, especially in the fields of psychology and sociology, has proven the superiority of positive over negative reinforcement. We know that violence begets violence. Untreated pain is projected outward. No small surprise then that America's reliance on punishment as a knee-jerk reaction to ingrained issues such as discrimination, poverty, joblessness, and social alienation has been an across-the-board failure. Our prison problem is so dire it will affect all of us for generations to come. Perhaps most troubling, however, is the moral bankruptcy of this system. Some families are three generations deep in prison. What does this say about us as a country?

I spoke with a group of Norwegians who described a point of view quite different from ours. When someone commits a crime in Norway, the collective response is, 'How have we failed this person, and what can we do about it?' The priority is on providing law-breakers what they need as quickly as possible so that they can re-enter society and live productive lives. In America, by contrast, some states are using the poor reading scores of elementary school students to predict how many prison beds will be needed when these same children come of age. Although intervention at the first signs of trouble could save these kids from a life trajectory leading to prison, we choose instead to finance the building of more prisons.

This situation has spiralled so alarmingly out of control, even the most comfortable of citizens are realizing that something must be done. This is where the intangible comes into play, because when something is morally unacceptable, our hearts prod us into action.

Let us answer the inner voice that says This is not right. Let us act boldly. Creatively. Let us leap over and beyond the slow machinery of legislative reform. Let us borrow from President Kennedy, who in 1961 signed an executive order establishing the Peace Corps, an international service organization synonymous with compassion in action. Let us create a prison corps that will channel homegrown idealism and America's vibrant energy right back into our own country. Let us establish a national nonprofit, the purpose of which is to synchronize the work of volunteers with the needs of overburdened, under-budgeted prisons--and, while we're at it, halfway houses and homeless shelters, which often serve as way-stations between prison and a new life. Let us create a vehicle by which mercy and compassion are the first responders in our criminal justice system.

Maura Poston Zagrans is a prison reform advocate and the author of Camerado, I Give You My Hand (Penguin Random House 2013)