“Our Difficulty Talking About Racism”

The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer was another in the long string of deaths of unarmed Black men and women by law enforcement in America.  The public reaction to this death has been phenomenal, with national and international protests involving thousands of persons—black and white, young and old, including many who have never engaged in protests against racial injustice.  The video of Officer Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes while looking calmly at the cellphone and three officers standing by observing his actions made this excessive use of police force stand out from others.  The incident was shocking. 

          Reactions by local, state, and national leaders and lawmakers were immediate.  The officers were fired and criminal charges have been filed.  Lawmakers in Minnesota and Washington, D.C. have responded with legislation to curb excessive use of force by police officers.  There is not general consensus among the public and lawmakers about the most appropriate and effective response to police use of force, however.  Nor is there general agreement on whether the officers’ actions constitute “racism.”  Many white Americans do not acknowledge the significance of the “Black Lives Matter” movement.  

Americans of the “Baby Boom” generation born after World War II witnessed similar protests against racial segregation in the 1960s.  We followed the news of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as he led peaceful protests to raise awareness of racial injustice.  Most Christians and church members did no more than listen politely and silently agree that Blacks were not treated fairly.  We certainly did not condone active protest movements.  The purpose of Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was in response to a public statement of eight Alabama clergymen representing mainline churches.  They appealed to Dr. King for “law and order and common sense” in pushing for change.  The church leaders preferred a civil, polite approach focused more on education and dialogue than on peaceful protests like marches that blocked roads and bridges and required police presence for crowd control. 

          If that appeal to “peaceful protest” and civil, polite dialogue sounds familiar, it is essentially the same position most White Americans and Christian leaders have taken in the fifty-seven years since Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was written.  

          The global protests following George Floyd’s tragic death were like a “wake-up call” to persistent, widespread racial injustice and police killings of unarmed Blacks.  Reasons for the protests are many and varied.  The COVID-19 “shelter-in-place” time has engendered thoughts and reflections on what we truly value.  Thousands of deaths and hospitalizations due to an unseen virus have made us rethink the true threats to our health and safety. Disruptions in education and the workplace; restaurants and bars closed; empty theaters and sports stadiums—this is not supposed to happen in America!  Complaints about inconveniences and “personal freedom” due to the pandemic were quickly drowned out by the unjustified death of another unarmed Black man at the hands (or knee) of another police officer.  

          I’ve addressed the issue of race and injustice in previous weblog posts, including Police Actions and People of Color, White Privilege and Justice, MLK, Jr.: A Struggle for Racial Equality & Justice

          The intensity and number of persons protesting George Floyd’s death drove me to read more, learn more, about why we White Americans have done so little to address the problems of racial inequality and injustice.  In short, it’s not a comfortable topic!  We seem to not know how to address racism.  We’re living in two worlds, black and white.  We go to school together, work together, celebrate music, entertainment, and sports together—but we’re not really “together.”  We self-segregate.  Dr. King was correct that the most segregated hour of the week is on Sunday mornings.

                Sociologist Robin DiAngelo claims “White Fragility” is what prevents White Americans from confronting racism.  She questions the claims of White Americans who deny racism, that they “were taught to treat everyone the same,” and that they are “color-blind.”  She coined the term “white fragility” to describe the defensiveness that white people exhibit when their ideas about race and racism are challenged. We refuse to acknowledge “white privilege” and white supremacy.  Our discomfort and reluctance to acknowledge and talk about racism is so apparent that many Black people don’t risk pointing out discrimination when they experience it and see it.  White fragility is a barrier to change and holds racism in place.

          This is not a comfortable read.  DiAngelo challenges the idea of being “color blind” and that “race doesn’t matter.”  Few White Americans will admit to being “racist.”  We have the idea that racism is conscious bias and prejudice held by narrow-minded, mean people.  Seeing our Black-White divide as a world of “evil racists” versus “compassionate non-racists” is what DiAngelo calls a “good/bad binary.”  White Americans focus on our good moral beliefs toward all people and overlook the systemic and structural racism that has disadvantaged Black Americans throughout American history.

          Ordained minister and professor of Sociology Michael Eric Dyson preaches against a culture of whiteness in Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America. Dyson’s central premise is that if we want true racial equality in America, whites must take an active part in doing away with the false idea of white supremacy.  While few Americans relish being “preached at,” the structure of the book may appeal to persons of faith who will recognize the chapters organized like an order of worship.  Readers should be prepared to hear the lament of a Black preacher who speaks from personal experience about the American culture of “whiteness” that shamelessly allows cruel, uncaring practices against our Black neighbors.

          Many Americans hailed the election of Barak Obama as the end of racism in this country.  “Postracial” was a term seen on social media and heard on the airwaves.   The election of President Obama surely was proof that Americans valued equality under the law and under God.  Many were skeptical of that optimistic claim however, and the last three years have proven the skeptics correct.  Racial inequality and injustice remain unchanged and Americans stand in need of reckoning with these persistent issues.  The editor and contributors of Race in a Post-Obama America: The Church Responds offer concerned Christians the chance to clarify terms and issues around racism and how to respond. 

          The book challenges the myth of white supremacy.  In the Foreword to the book, the Rev. Otis Moss III writes that racism will be “eradicated by Christians only when we reject these myths and come to grips with the beauty of Africanness and dare to live out a new Christianity that is not beholden to European views.  We fight these myths by admitting they exist.  We fight them by facing the biblical mandate about what the Lord requires: to act justly and to love mercy and to walk with humility before God.”

          American institutions including schools, banks, government offices, housing practices, laws, and justice system officials have in fact acted and made decisions as if black lives do not matter as much as white lives.  Yes, the thousands of persons protesting the tragic deaths of George Floyd and other unarmed Black persons clearly understand the meaning of “Black Lives Matter.”

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Police Actions and People of Color White Privilege and Justice

MLK, Jr.: A Struggle for Racial Equality & Justice

“White Fragility” Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America

Race in a Post-Obama America: The Church Responds

Prisons During a Pandemic

One of the things I miss most during this pandemic is going to prison. Yes, you read that correctly. To be clear: as a Prison Fellowship Volunteer I miss the two hours each week of meeting with 25 residents in a state prison. The Prison Fellowship Reentry meetings are also missed by the inmates, the prison chaplain, and by the prison warden who requested the program as a way to reduce the rate of return to prison.

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The coronavirus pandemic and shutdown made it essential to restrict prison entry to only prison officials. The challenge of protecting a prison population of 1,000 residents from the deadly virus is difficult. Three shifts of officers and staff enter the prison daily to work in conditions that don’t allow for “social distance” in the close living and working quarters.

Corrections officers and prison staff members are placing themselves at risk by working in close quarters much like emergency workers and hospital staff. The difference is that little attention is paid to them. They’re just working with convicted felons who deserve the prison sentences they got! Yes, correct enough. But like all criminal justice officials, those working in jails and prisons deserve safe working conditions.

There’s another reason detention centers, jails, and prisons must be maintained as safe working environments. The U. S. Supreme Court ruled in Estelle v. Gamble [429 U. S. 97 (1976)] that the government must provide medical care to those whom it punishes in incarceration. The ruling had a special impact on me because I was studying Criminal Justice in a graduate school located adjacent to the Texas Prison System where the case originated. The Supreme Court gave us a vivid illustration of how failure to provide medical care to those in government custody is a violation of the Eighth Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment.

Thousands of jail and prison inmates have been released by states and counties, following guidance of public health and corrections officials to attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus through the corrections system. Priority for those released include older nonviolent inmates, those with a compromised immune system, and jail inmates held on an unpaid money bond. The coronavirus has been confirmed in correctional officers and inmates in some prisons and jails. President Trump indicated in a news conference in March that he would consider an executive order to release elderly nonviolent offenders from federal prisons.

The coronavirus pandemic has affected all of us in multiple ways, ranging from complaints about personal inconvenience to grief over the untimely death of family and friends. Faith-based and religious activists have raised awareness of the effects of the pandemic. The Jewish Never Again Action group projected an image of Anne Frank on a wall near Boston’s John F. Kennedy Federal Building. The caption below her face read “Anne Frank died of an infectious disease in a crowded detention center.” ( See “Deadly as Dachau” in Christian Century, April 22, 2020.)

Faith-based advocates representing Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and other religious groups have pushed for release of inmates who pose minimal public safety risk from county jails, state and federal prisons, and ICE detention facilities. Smaller incarcerated populations will enhance the safety of both inmates and officers, allowing for some social distancing and some relief for the few medical personnel in the facilities.

Prison Fellowship volunteers regularly see the importance of religious programming and the pivotal role of Prison Chaplains in maintaining a positive prison environment. Inmates who voluntarily participate in Prison Fellowship and other religious programming take responsibility for their actions that landed them in prison. They are focused on positive change to prepare for their release back into society. Faith-based prison volunteers are drawn to assist Prison Chaplains in helping inmates turn their lives around.

Author and retired minister Donald McKim recently shared his thoughts during this pandemic (“Pondering in the Pandemic“). Three theological emphases of the Reformed tradition are: God is sovereign; God can bring good out of bad; and we can use the means God gives us.

We have all witnessed good, helpful, self-less actions demonstrated by people during this pandemic. Good things do happen during bad times. In his letter to early Christian believers in Rome the Apostle Paul wrote: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

We believe that God is sovereign in history and in our lives, even through pandemics. God’s purposes will be fulfilled, through good times and bad. None of us like being required to “shelter at home” anymore than prison inmates like being incarcerated. But through it all we believe God’s love is present and is expressed through love and caring people around us.

Paul prayed to God for relief from his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7). We too pray for relief from this pandemic. It is my belief and hope that we will find some relief just as Paul wrote of God’s promise to him: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

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Deadly as Dachau

Pondering in the Pandemic

Crime, Coronavirus, and a Cure

Vinnie’s Mom sent him to the pharmacy to pick up her medication. Like a good son he walked the eight blocks to help out his Mom with this important errand. The pharmacist gave Vinnie the prescription after charging his Mom’s account and put it in a bag for him to carry home. On his way out of the store Vinnie noticed a display with the latest earplugs that would work great with his smart phone. The price however was $19.95—more money than he could afford. Vinnie noticed no clerk was at the check-out counter. She was stocking shelves two rows back, out of sight. No one, neither customers nor store employees were between him and the door. The opportunity was too good. He carefully, deftly, took an earplug package, dropped it in his bag and walked out. He heaved a sigh of relief when no security alarm went off as he exited the store.

Did Vinnie commit a crime? Yes, he did! But Vinnie is a good kid. …not a juvenile delinquent. He’s never done a crime before, never hurt anyone, helps out his Mom. But he committed a crime, even while helping his Mom with an important errand. It didn’t seem like such a bad thing. He heard stories from friends at school about how they “got stuff for free!” “Lotsa kids did it, and hardly anyone ever got caught.”

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Vinnie’s right: only 2 percent are ever caught. But it’s a serious crime. According to the National Retail Security Survey, employee theft and shoplifting cost $49 billion a year.   Criminologists describe shoplifting and employee theft as a “rational” or “choice” type of crime that occurs through routine activities“.

In contrast to other crimes, shoplifting is not done out of anger or passion; no one is assaulted or threatened, and it’s not specific to social class, age, gender, or other social characteristics. It’s more easily rationalized (and therefore more common) than other crimes. “I’m not hurting anyone.” “Stores jack up their prices too high anyway.” Ironically that last statement is true in part because the cost of retail theft by a few drives up the price for all of us!

Understanding the causes directs us to the “cure.” Three factors explain rational choice crime like shoplifting: (1) the availability of suitable targets of crime; (2) the absence of guardians; and (3) the presence of motivated offenders.

The “suitable target of crime” for Vinnie was the display of earplugs conveniently located near the exit of the store. The absence of a store clerk (a “guardian”) at the counter made the crime possible. But how often had Vinnie or every one of us been in a similar situation when we could have walked out of a store without paying? The opportunities for crime are endless! Rational choice crime therefore also requires a third factor: a “motivated offender” to pull it off.  “Motivated offenders” are willing to take risks of getting caught and they justify or rationalize their actions: “no one’s getting hurt, it’s not a real crime, it’s not a big deal!”

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Coronavirus and Crime

Vinnie’s Uncle Bill is an ambulance driver. He admired his uncle and would like to have a job like him some day. Helping transport injured and sick people to a hospital is a great thing to do. But Uncle Bill tested positive for the Coronavirus while doing his “everyday activity” of transporting injured and ill people to the hospital. The coronavirus does what viruses do: they infect people, especially when they are not protected, when there’s no “guardian.”

The Cure

To reduce “everyday” or “rational choice” crimes requires at least one of three preventative measures: reduce the number of “suitable targets”; increase protective measures or “guardians”; and reduce the number of “motivated offenders.”

The first two measures are fairly straightforward. Stores, banks, and similar businesses all reduce “suitable targets” and increase “guardians” (visible and invisible). To reduce the spread of coronavirus, government and health officials are insisting upon personal behaviors and habits that will reduce the spread of the virus. We know the CDC guidelines: wash our hands, avoid close contact, and more.

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Reducing the number of “motivated offenders” is a greater challenge. To discourage Vinnie and others from stealing requires education, socialization, character development and more. You get it. Instilling ethical and moral principles of “right” and “wrong” even in the absence of that “guardian” is a lengthy process and one that depends on all of us as role models. Yes, we’re all in this together!

Stretching an already imperfect analogy a bit farther, changing the “motivation” of the coronavirus and its ill effects on our bodies requires well-tested vaccines or anti-bodies that can fight off the virus. Changing “motivated offenders” and developing effective medications against a virus both take time, research, and dedicated efforts of thousands of people.

It’s complicated and requires knowledge and expertise; and yet it’s also simple and begins with each of us. We know the importance of family and parental support, of childhood education and nurture. But our support for parental leaves, childcare and public health ranks well below similar democratic, industrialized nations. America’s system of taxpayer support for public schools results in what one writer called “savage inequalities” among rich and poor school districts.2  Schools with the greatest needs get the least funding.

Most Americans have never faced a pandemic like this one. But this is not our first one. The 1918 influenza pandemic claimed the lives of 50 million worldwide and 675,000 in the U.S.

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Historians remind us of a quotation by George Santayana more than 100 years ago: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

The coronavirus pandemic has taken many lives, altered everyday activities and instilled fear.   It is like crime, except that we cannot place the blame on those “motivated offenders”!

We’re learning from this experience. The devastation and widespread effects on the entire nation are reminding us that history does repeat itself. The greatest threats to our safety and well-being are not always crime, terrorism, and international conflict.  We would do well to remember similar threats in our history and be prepared to face them.

The words of Moses are instructive: “See, just as the Lord my God has charged me, I now teach you statutes and ordinances for you to observe…. You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who… will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!” (Deuteronomy 4:5-6).

The words of Job: “With God are wisdom and strength; he has counsel and understanding” (Job 12:13).

Words attributed to King Solomon (6th century BCE): “For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding” (Proverbs 2:6).

“Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil. It will be a healing for your flesh and a refreshment for your body” (Proverbs 3:7).

“Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one bungler destroys much good” (Ecclesiastes 9:18).

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1See e.g., Marcus Felson, Crime and Everyday Life. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press, 1994.)

2Jonathan Kozol, Savage Inequalities (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991).

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National Retail Security Survey

Juvenile Justice: The Essentials

“Crime and Everyday Life”

Centers for Disease Control

1918 influenza pandemic

Criminology and the Theater

 

America’s “solution” to crime is punishment because we believe that criminal behavior is a personal choice for which the individual offender must be held accountable. Just make the consequences of crime “painful” by punishing ’em and crime will stop. So we believe. But “getting tough on crime” has not worked.

Criminologists and other social scientists have presented research evidence over the past 100 years that there are identifiable causes for all human behavior. We all have choices and make personal decisions. But those choices are influenced by factors beyond our control. Many state laws and policies for reducing juvenile delinquency were based on findings that interventions in families and home environment made a difference.

The voices and actions of criminologists, social workers, and juvenile rehabilitation proponents were drowned out by those who insisted that crime was simply a personal choice. Most of us don’t want to accept that perhaps some of our crime and social problems can be traced to our nation’s lack of support for families, schools, and social institutions.   Can the theater open our minds to criminologists’ claims? 

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The award-winning play “West Side Story” depicted a satirical view of juvenile delinquency that reflects criminologists’ findings. The 1957 Broadway play was based on a book by Arthur Laments, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. The 1961 musical film was directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise. The story revolves around two warring New York City gangs: the “Jets,” a white gang led by Riff; and the Puerto Rican “Sharks,” led by Bernardo.

Tony, a former leader of the Jets and Riff’s best friend, sees Maria, Bernardo’s little sister, at a dance. Their eyes meet across the room and it is love at first sight. Despite opposition from both sides they secretly meet and their love grows deeper. The Jets and the Sharks plan one last rumble, and whoever wins gains control of the streets. Maria sends Tony to stop the fight in hope that he can end the violence. His attempts fail however, and tragedy strikes as the story comes to a climactic and heartbreaking ending.

Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics put to music by Bernstein in the song “Gee, Officer Krupke” portray both the stereotypes and established causes of juvenile crime.

“Gee, Officer Krupke”

Dear kindly Sergeant Krupke, you gotta understand

It’s just our bringin’ up-ke, that gets us out of hand.

Our mothers all are junkies, our fathers are all drunks.

Golly Moses, natcherly we’re punks….

We never had the love that ev’ry child oughta get.

We ain’t no delinquents, we’re misunderstood….

Dear kindly judge, your Honor, my parents treat me rough….

They didn’t wanna have me, but somehow I was had.

Leapin’ lizards! That’s why I’m so bad! ….

This boy don’t need a judge, he needs an analyst’s care!

It’s just his neurosis that oughta be curbed.

He’s psychologic’ly disturbed!….

This boy don’t need a doctor, just a good honest job.

Society’s played him a terrible trick, and sociologic’ly he’s sick!….

Juvenile delinquency is purely a social disease! ….

Good entertainment?   Yes!    Besides portraying some of the stereotypes and “bleeding heart” explanations of delinquency, “West Side Story” portrays the problems we face due to disparities in school funding, lack of equal educational and employment opportunities, and our willingness to turn our backs on countless children and their parents, most of whom are doing their best to make it with limited resources.

Fast-forward to 1998 and 2000 when medical experts published research on the effects of  Adverse Childhood Experiences” (ACEs). Children and youth who experience abuse, family conflict, disruption, alcohol and drug abuse tend to make bad choices and personal decisions that bring them to the attention of police and juvenile authorities.

        Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) and Delinquency

  • Childhood Abuse: Emotional, Physical, Sexual Abuse
  • Neglect: Emotional or Physical
  • Growing up in a seriously dysfunctional household: Domestic violence, alcohol & drug abuse in the home, mentally ill family members, parental marital discord, crime in the home.

“Discipline your children while there is hope; do not set your heart on their destruction.” –Proverbs 19:18.

“The righteous walk in integrity—happy are the children who follow them.”                     –Proverbs 20:7

“Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray.” –Proverbs 22:6

Tags      Juvenile Justice: The Essentials         “West Side Story”       “Gee, Officer Krupke”

Whatever Became of “Sin”?

Crime is a major topic of daily news reports. We abhor crime. We fear its effects. But crime and police shows are among the most watched on television. We hate crime but are entertained by it!

Contradictory?   Yes, but no less inconsistent than our willingness to tolerate “white-collar” crimes that do not threaten our personal safety.  Americans are more tolerant of illegal actions of prominent citizens, the wealthy, and those in positions of power.

Have the lines between “what is right” and what is illegal, immoral, and unethical become blurred in American society? Many think so.

What-Sin

The renowned psychiatrist Dr. Karl Menninger wrote a book years ago that addressed the Biblical and theological perspectives of illegal and unethical behavior. Our reluctance to call wrongful behavior “sins” is as true today as it was in 1973 when his book “Whatever Became of Sin?” was published.

Menninger notes that the word “sin” was once in everyone’s mind but now is rarely heard. Is no one guilty of sin now? Wrong things are being done, but is no one answerable or responsible for these acts? Has no one committed sin anymore?

Sin is referred to repeatedly in the Bible.   Failure to follow God’s laws and commandments constitutes sin.  Jesus said the two greatest commandments are “to love God and our neighbors” (with a very broad definition of “neighbor”).    Failure to do so would be a “sin”.

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According to the Webster Dictionary,

Sin is an offense against God, religion, or good morals; an offense against any law, standard, or code; or, “a sin against good taste.”

Many former sins have become crimes. What were once sins against God and neighbor are now crimes against local, state, or federal laws. Responsibility for dealing with them passed from the church to the state. One might say the policeman replaced the priest.

Under the justice process we no longer have “sinners” but “criminal suspects.” All are legally innocent until proven guilty “beyond reasonable doubt.” A fair justice process considers all legal and relevant factors in determining guilt. Despite good intentions, justice varies by economic status: “How much justice (legal counsel) can you afford?”

The American system of justice is arguably the best in the world. Court officials focus on “fairness for all” but they are not perfect. It is important to recognize that the formal judicial process deals solely with “criminal behavior.” A court finding of not “legally guilty” may not mean “factually innocent.”

The justice process only deals with crimes and violations as defined in a legal code. Most deceitful, hurtful, unethical and reprehensible behaviors are not criminal or illegal.   Should they then be overlooked and accepted?   Certainly not.

I am not suggesting a move toward shaming and judging the sinful among us!     Anyone familiar with the Bible recalls Jesus’s reminders that “no one is without sin”—a point that his disciples recorded.

“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” –1 John 1:8

What then are we to do?    I concur with Dr. Menninger that responsible citizens in a democratic society have become more sensitive to injustice and cruelty.   The purpose of his book was to sensitize and arouse readers to recognize and oppose “sin”.   There is “sin” among us although it is called by various names.   I long for personal responsibility in all human actions, good and bad.   Evil-doing tends to evoke guilt feelings and unease. Honesty, self-awareness, and the desire to “do the right thing” would go a long way toward curbing what we used to call “sin”.

 

What is a State Department of “Corrections”?

A conversation I had recently with two retired pastors raised some questions about the vocational career in which I’ve been engaged for forty-plus years. They asked me, “What exactly does it mean to ‘correct’ a person? What is a ‘corrected person’? …and why do we call the State Department best known for operating prisons a “Department of Corrections“?

Good questions! …for which we in the Criminal Justice System should have answers and explanations. The Reverends R. Alan James and William Yueill asked the questions when planning for an upcoming meeting of “The Institute of Theological and Interdisciplinary Studies” at Macalester College in St. Paul. Rev. James founded The Institute years ago as a forum for continuing learning. Institute programs have featured physicists, judges, college presidents, researchers, physicians, writers, farmers, musicians and theologians.

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So what about their questions? We Americans deserve a clear answer. $80 billion of our taxes go to support federal and state corrections in this country!

Corrections is that part of the Criminal Justice System responsible for

  • Administering the Court sentence.
  • Agencies, Institutions, & Programs using techniques & activities intended to provide security, safety, change, “correction,” & rehabilitative functions toward the goals of protecting society, reducing criminal behaviors, and changing
  • Institutional Corrections includes Jails, Detention Centers, and Prisons.
  • Community Corrections includes Probation, Parole, and community residential alternatives.
  • Measurable, observable outcomes: Ex-offenders who have “paid their debt” to society by completing their sentence and all conditions; and are productive, legally-employed, law-abiding citizens.

This last point attempts to define a “corrected offender.”

Can prisons “correct” criminal offenders? That’s their objective. Prisons punish criminals by restricting their freedom through incarceration in living conditions that most of us would find intolerable. Tough living conditions in prison are intended to be a deterrent to future crime. It works to deter some offenders, but not all.

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It’s fair to ask whether “correctional institutions” are in fact “correct.” Are prisons the best way to “correct” criminals? Not exactly. Confining a thousand convicted felons in tight quarters to “correct them” makes as much sense as putting all the worst persons in the state together in ten prisons and hope they get better!

To be clear, prisons do provide security and public safety from threats and assaults from dangerous offenders as long as they are confined. The problem: only convicted murderers who receive a life sentence without parole are never released. The majority of prisoners will be released back into the community to live among us, so we want some assurance that they come out better than when they went into prison!

“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

                –Fyodor Dostoevsky, in The House of the Dead, 1862.

The famous Russian author Dostoevsky spent four years in a Siberian prison camp. American prisons have also generally been described as punitive, stark institutions where any hope of positive change for prison inmates is difficult to impossible.

A fair question to ask then is whether institutions operated by a Department of “Corrections” is itself a “correct institution”!

The definition of “correct” according to Webster is “to make right; change from wrong to right; remove errors from; to make conform to a standard; to scold or punish to rectify faults.”

The definition of “to correct” accurately describes the objectives and purpose of correctional institutions. Correctional Officers, Case Managers, and Administrative Staff up to the Prison Warden are dedicated and sworn to uphold those objectives. The question remains whether their positive change influence is effective in the face of prison conditions and the “convict culture” that permeates all prisons.

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The Institute of Theological and Interdisciplinary Studies

Minnesota Department of Corrections

Federal Bureau of Prisons

The Cost of Correcting Offenders

“Crime is costly—but so, too, is punishment, especially prison. The real costs are much higher than the $80 billion we spend each year on prisons and jails: they include a host of financial, physical, emotional, and social costs to inmates, their families, and communities.” —John F. Pfaff, Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration—and How to Achieve Real Reform. (New York: Basic Books, 2017), p. 107

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America’s “get-tough-on crime” policies do not come without a price tag. The “war on drugs” that began in the1980s pulled more persons into the system. As the cost of jails, prisons, probation, and parole have skyrocketed, lawmakers came up with ways to make offenders themselves help pay for the costs through fines and fees. They promised voters they would reduce drug abuse and related crimes without making taxpayers pay for it.

So how has that worked out? For the small number of convicted offenders able to pay the fines and fees, taxpayers were relieved of some of the corrections costs. The vast majority of persons however are not able to pay the extra costs. Failure to pay fines, court costs, and probation fees is a violation of court orders and results in jail time for which taxpayers must pay. Costs to the offender mean loss of a job and society is hurt by loss of tax revenue.

An article in the Christian Century underscored for me the link between economic disparities and social injustice (“Predatory Fines: How a traffic ticket can lead to homelessness,” by Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil, Dec. 4, 2019). Consider the following:

  • Fees and assessments tacked on to traffic violations of $100 now cost nearly $500, placing low-income violators in revolving debts from which they couldn’t overcome.
  • Costs for collecting fees are up with Los Angeles County spending $3.9 million to bring in $3.4 million in probation fees.
  • The $50 monthly probation fee in San Francisco meant individuals leaving the system were charged $57 million—way above their ability to pay.
  • The average of court-related fines and fees was $13,000 per individual in Oakland, requiring most to take out high-interest loans to cover costs.

Court costs and probation fees are common throughout the U.S. They are considered among the “collateral consequences” of a criminal conviction. Americans generally support lawmakers’ demands that criminals “pay for their crime.” That used to mean with time served but now it means financial obligations beyond their ability to pay. The problem is made worse by the reluctance of employers to hire ex-offenders despite their desire to work and the skills they bring to a job. We have a revolving dilemma: inability and failure to pay is a probation violation that puts them back in jail or prison, at taxpayers’ expense!

What’s wrong? Why do laws and punishments not work? Lawmakers want to deter crime while easing financial burdens on taxpayers.

Criminologists two centuries ago (late 1700s) emphasized that punishment for crime must be proportionate to the harm done. We want to deter the behavior and not create the conditions for escalating crime. Turns out, they were right. Today, the recognition that excessive fines and fees levied against offenders unable to pay them has led counties and states to assess and reform these laws.

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Crime and punishment are both costly. Perhaps it’s time to consider putting more money “up front” to prevent crime before it happens. Criminologists for decades have declared that better schools, job training and equal employment opportunities for all persons are among the best crime prevention strategies.

 

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“…(T)he idea that lower crime is the only acceptable goal simply isn’t true. There are other, competing goals that are also desirable…. We could have less crime—but we also want more schools… and lower taxes. There’s a level of crime we’re willing to accept. No politician will say this publicly, but it’s inarguably true” – John F. Pfaff, Locked In, p. 118.

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“Predatory fines” by Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil

John Pfaff, “Locked In”

Citizenship and the Ballot Box

Millions of Americans went to the polls this past Tuesday to cast their ballot for the candidates of their choice. Millions more will do the same a year from now. Many citizens however skipped their opportunity to vote. Others who wanted to vote were denied the right to participate in this important part of the democratic process.

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Americans generally regard the United States as the foremost example of a democratic nation in the world. How then do we explain the low percentage of citizens who actually vote? The U.S. has the world’s highest level of campaign spending but among the lowest levels of voter turnout of any democracy. Are we doing all we can to encourage voter turnout? Why do we continue to hold elections on Tuesdays rather than on a weekend when more persons could get to the polls? Or why have we not seriously considered making voting day a holiday? Surely the most important part of democratic government should enable and encourage the greatest possible voter turnout!

We believe that government is “of, for, and by the people” – meaning it is the inalienable right of every citizen to have a voice in making the laws s/he/they is or are called upon to obey. Is voting a right? …or a privilege? The barriers and challenges faced by many citizens suggests that voting is a privilege of which many citizens are disenfranchised.

Most states restrict voting rights for persons convicted of a felony crime. Felon “disenfranchisement laws” make sense for those sentenced to prison. Taking away a citizen’s right to vote stretches logic however for persons serving time on probation or parole supervision in the community. Nevertheless more than half of the states enforce such restrictions (see National Conference of State Legislatures).

The policy of voter restrictions on offenders goes against our stated goals of offender change, correction, rehabilitation, and successful reintegration back into society.

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The Presbyterian Church (PC-USA) approved a study, “Lift Every Voice: Democracy, Voting Rights and Electoral Reform” in 2008 at its 218th General Assembly. The study highlights the limitations imposed on African Americans, other persons of color, and poorer working class citizens of all races in regard to voting rights. Such limitations are unacceptable for a nation founded on freedom and democracy.

The “Lift Every Voice” study declares that what we do for the least powerful among us politically benefits us all. Opening our political system’s access to the voices and choices of all citizens benefits the nation. Encouraging voter participation among young first-time voters, the poor, and aging voters with fewer economic resources to meet growing needs is a way of engaging more positive citizen involvement.

Recommendations of the “Lift Every Voice study include:

  • Amend the U.S. Constitution to guarantee citizens the right to vote.
  • Provide universal voter registration.
  • Remove obstacles to voter participation.
  • Re-enfranchise felons who have paid their debt to society.
  • Reject expensive voter ID requirements.
  • Transition to nonpartisan legislative districting.

Members of the Presbyterian Church have been politically active since our nation’s founding that included several signers of the Declaration of Independence. The “Lift Every Voice” study concludes:

“We thus advocate a Presbyterian democratic or electoral ethic of individual discipline, multicultural awareness and communal responsibility. …. We are Christians first and Americans second, understanding God’s sovereignty above every nation, including our own.”

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A Case for Going to the Polls

Felon Voting Rights

“Lift Every Voice”

The Case Against Private Prisons

     My previous blog post (“Prison Punishment as Profitable Business“)  noted the growth of private prisons in the U.S.  Private corporations such as GEO Group, Core Civic (formerly CCA—Corrections Corporation of America), Cornell, and Wackenhut promise they can provide prison space at less cost.  Influence and lobbying efforts by private prison executives have been directed at legislative changes to put more people behind bars for longer sentences.

          Private prisons in the U. S. incarcerated 128,063 people in 2016– 8.5% of the total state and federal prison population. Since 2000 private prison populations have increased 47%.  (See “Prison Punishment as a Private Business” and “The Sentencing Project” for more details.) 

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Arguments for Abolishing Private Prisons.  In-depth studies of the operation of private prisons led the Presbyterian Church [PC(USA)] to recommend abolishing state and federal contracts with private prison corporations.  There are practical and ethical arguments against private corporations administering criminal sentences for state and federal courts for profit.

  • The profit motive influences all parts of prison administration and operation.
  • Hiring and training qualified employees.
  • Providing food services, education and treatment services, recreation, prisoner training, prison industries, and more.
  • Intake decisions, release, and transfer of prisoners to maintain prison population within capacity limits.
  • For State & Federal prisons, recidivism is a failure; private prisons want returned prisoners for greater profit !
  • Private prison policies contradict the principle of incarceration as a last resort for violent and repeat offenders only.
  • Private prison industry’s goals are to promote their own interests, not those of the state, society, or offenders.
  • They lobby for prison sentences for more offenders; for longer prison terms; against alternatives to incarceration; and for mandatory sentences for victimless crimes.

Private Prison Corporations Promise They Can Run Jails & Prisons at Lower Costs

  • The claim is not true; there are hidden costs involved.
  • Private prison corporations redistribute how existing funds are allocated with prison systems.
  • To pay corporate executives more than government executives they cut costs elsewhere.
  • They claim they “do it better” but cut services to prisoners; cut employee wages & benefits; cut the number of employees.
  • They spend millions of dollars lobbying legislators for laws and policies that will favor private prisons, including increasing prison sentences for more offenders & increasing sentence lengths.

Private Prison Corporations’ Profit Motive Goes Against “What is Right & Just”

  • According to the Courts, private prisons risk violations of Federal & Supreme Court guidelines for prisons.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court ordered certain minimum prison conditions under the 8th Amendment requirement against “cruel & unusual punishment”.
  • Prison industry’s goals contradict the stated aims of the church and prison reformers regarding punishment and restorative justice.
  • The Church and prison reformers hold that the goal of prison is to rehabilitate and restore offenders.
  • For the private prison industry rehabilitation is not a goal but a threat to profit and continuing success of the industry.

Examples of Private Prison Abuses

  • A court awarded the family of a 15-year-old boy $3 million for physical abuse by CCA staff in South Carolina for an entire year of physical abuse.
  • Doctors found boot marks on the face of an asylum seeker held in a CCA detention center in Elizabeth, NJ.
  • Juvenile girls were repeatedly raped by guards in a Wackenhut facility in Coke County, TX (the company agreed to settle a lawsuit without publicly accepting responsibility).
  • U.S. Justice Dept. sued the state of Louisiana & Wackenhut Corrections for subjecting juveniles to “excessive abuse and neglect“.
  • Multiple cases of sexual misconduct & violence were found by guards in Santa Fe, NM jail run by Cornell Corrections.
  • A Cornell guard was indicted on 5 counts for having sexual intercourse with a female inmate; another guard was fired after a 15-year-old girl accused him of molesting and raping her.
  • Another Cornell guard was arrested for forcing a male prisoner to give him oral sex.
  • A Cornell guard was accused of sexual misconduct by four women who were assaulted.
  • Cornell Corrections hired a jail warden despite his being fired as the head of the state prison in Roswell, NM.
  • Cornell paid workers of the Santa Fe County Jail 40% less than the state’s minimum wage.
  • The City of Santa Fe refused to pay bills that were greatly inflated and submitted by Cornell for its jail operations.
  • Cornell failed to release prisoners on time because they were dependent on the $65 per day they got. A State District Court Judge ordered timely release or transfer to another jail facility.

Examples of Medical Misconduct by Private Facilities

  • A young African-American man died of pneumonia while serving a 6-year sentence for forgery.
  • A 23-year-old woman suffered for 12 hours in a CCA facility in Silverdale, TN from a pregnancy complication before officials took her to a hospital, where she died.
  • Prisoners at Cornell’s Santa Fe Jail reported consistent problems obtaining prescribed medications and medical treatment.
  • Oklahoma Dept. of Corrections levied a fine of $168,750 against Cornell’s Correctional Facility for inadequate medical care and withholding information from the state.

            The primary purpose of jails, detention centers and prisons is to assure offenders’ court appearance, for public safety, and to carry out a court sentence.  Security and order maintenance are the primary goals, preventing assaults against officers and fellow inmates and escape attempts.  Reform, education, training, and rehabilitation are secondary.  Under U.S. Supreme Court rulings however, all jails and corrections facilities must comply with guidelines under the 8th Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment.

                    State Departments of Corrections and the Federal Bureau of Prisons work hard to comply with court standards for prison operations.  Administrators and corrections staff are qualified, experienced, and well-trained to meet these standards.  Evidence shows that the private for-profit prisons often fail to meet those same standardsWe deserve better

Tags     Prison Punishment as Profitable Business                The Sentencing Project               Presbyterian Church [PC(USA)] Recommends Abolishing Private Prisons