November begins with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. Both are about redemption, already achieved in the case of the saints and a work in progress for the rest of us. But it is not as simple as saving our own skin; we cannot redeem ourselves unless we redeem others.
These thoughts came to me after listening to a talk after Mass by a representative of the Order of Malta, a Catholic organization with a long history of helping the poor. It was a plea for support of the Malta Justice Initiative, which seeks to reform the criminal justice system in Connecticut.
It starts with reducing costs, lowering recidivism and increasing public safety. This is not a goal that would win votes for any politician.
With 2.4 million people behind bars, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. By some figures, the U.S. is home to 5 percent of the world’s population yet has 25 percent of the world’s prisoner population.
“This situation exists notwithstanding the fact that U.S. crime rates are not materially different from those found in other countries,” asserts a book published by the Order of Malta titled, “The Justice Imperative: How Hyper-Incarceration Has Hijacked the American Dream.”
The huge boom in incarceration was a consequence of the war on drugs. In the 1990s a new prison opened in the rural U.S. every 15 days. Connecticut, a small state with almost 3.6 million inhabitants, has 15 prisons, now housing 16,600 inmates.
Nearly half were convicted of nonviolent drug crimes, or property and public order crimes, sometimes with sentences that seemed cruel and inhumane. One example is Danielle Metz, who became pregnant at 17 and later married a drug dealer who abused her. To placate him, she sometimes helped pick up cocaine and collect drug payments from Western Union. Though she had already left him, she was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. There are countless tragic stories like hers.
The logic of locking people up and throwing the key away still reigns. An editorial in the Hartford Courant newspaper says that Republicans are “panicking” about a program called Risk Reduction Earned Credits, one of several ways inmates can leave prison early. Those convicted of violent crimes are not eligible. It seems to be working; recidivism is down among participants.
With systemic costs becoming unsustainable nationally, change must come: fewer rather than more prisons, programs to deal with nonviolent offenders without incarceration, rehabilitation that turns former offenders into law-abiding, tax-paying citizens.
In Texas, a state notorious for being tough on crime, a bipartisan initiative closed three prisons, invested in treatment programs, created specialty drug and prostitution courts, expanded probation, saved billions of dollars and still reduced crime. Michigan, New York, Missouri, Delaware and Kentucky, among others, have seen similar results.
Texas State Sen. John Whitmire, a Democrat, said: “There ought to be a requirement that you release a better person than the one you receive.” And Republican Gov. Rick Perry declared: “The idea that we lock people up, throw them away forever, never give them a second chance at redemption isn’t what America is about.”
“Dare to be great,” urges Malta’s justice initiative in its mission statement. “Visit the incarcerated, affirming their human dignity and ministering to their spiritual needs; insist on change; volunteer with agencies involved with inmates; hire qualified ex-offenders.”