The Justice Imperative: How Hyper-Incarceration Has Hijacked the American Dream, is a book about the criminal justice and corrections system in Connecticut, but it is also a book about the criminal justice and corrections systems in the country, by the Malta Justice Initiative (MJI) of Connecticut.
MJI is a sponsored work of the Order of Malta, one of the oldest institutions of Western and Christian civilization, dating back to around 1050. Prison ministry is the core mission of MJI.
MJI has produced a book with the “fervent hope that by educating the public about the serious issues confronting the criminal justice system, [that] hearts and minds will be changed, thereby enhancing the potential for more positive outcomes and needed reform.” Since I have a positive review of this book, I need to get certain things out of the way first, in the hope that by educating people about the stigmatizing language of the criminal justice system that this, too, will be looked at as an area of much needed reform.
Throughout the book, the authors use the jargon of the criminal justice system, jargon that is stigmatizing, jargon that defines people by their crimes or criminal justice status, as if they are no more – “convicts”; “minimal violence offender”; “ex-convicts”; “ex-cons”; former offenders;” “felons”; etc. People involved in the criminal justice system are not defined and thus not seen as people, people in prison or jail; people convicted of nonviolent crimes; people who had been imprisoned; people convicted of felonies. This is very important, the language we use to talk about people involved in the criminal justice system, for when we see them as “other,” it is that much easier to deal with them in harsh manners, in sentencing and in prison and jail. On the other hand, when we humanize the language, acknowledging their humanity, then we begin to see them as our mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, that is, people connected to us in various ways. Perhaps therein lies the imperative.
Each chapter in The Justice Imperative, with the exception of the first and the last three, begins with a vignette, a powerful story about people and their involvement in the criminal justice system, from a young woman who helped her husband, a drug dealer, pick up drugs and drug payments from Western Union, sentenced to life, who has served more than 20 years, to an 86-year-old man who has served 40 years for felonies committed in the 1970s that were serious but did not result in any deaths, being denied parole, despite being confined to a wheelchair, suffering from a neuromuscular disorder, asthma, high blood pressure and cancer, based on a “probability” that he would not live and remain at liberty without violating the law and that his release would “undermine respect for the law.” (The former is a Connecticut case, the latter a New York case.)
One of the strong points of the book is that it deals with many of the myths of the criminal justice and corrections system, counterbalancing them with the realities. Each chapter, after the vignette, poses key questions, key observations and the current state of affairs in Connecticut.
As stated earlier, although this is a book about Connecticut, it is also a book about the country. We now know the statistics by heart: the United States imprisons more people than any other nation in the world, about two million people, mostly because of the “war on drugs.” It also locks people up for longer periods of time than any other nation in the world; it locks more people up for life than any other nation in the world; it locks young people up for life without and with the possibility of parole than any other nation in the world. And the list goes on and on, ad nauseam.
The good news is that it looks like we are sick and tired of having the dubious distinction of being a prison state. Most states are moving towards and implementing meaningful criminal justice reforms.
As we move toward reforming our criminal justice system, we must be committed to reform even in the darkest and most trying moments. When we look at the criminal justice pendulum, we see that we go back and forth between periods of punitiveness and reform. In fact, when we are in a time of reform, we are almost always one heinous crime away from reverting back to a time of punitiveness. Connecticut experienced this in 2007, when Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky, two formerly incarcerated people, invaded the Cheshire home of Dr. William Petit. They beat Dr. Petit and tied him up. They sexually assaulted the doctor’s wife and his 11-year-old daughter. They later burned the house down, killing the doctor’s wife and his two daughters. The doctor somehow escaped. New York experienced this in 1997, when Nicholas Eugene Pryor, a formerly incarcerated individual, killed Jenna Grieshaber, a 22-year-old nursing student. As a result of this crime, George Pataki, New York’s governor, who was looking to do away with parole, in part for the state to qualify and be eligible for criminal justice block grants from the federal government, got Jenna’s law passed, which created determinate sentencing for people convicted of violent crimes. And perhaps Massachusetts experienced the most famous case in recent history. In 1986, Willie Horton, an individual with an extensive criminal history, was released on a furlough. He did not return to the lock up and ended up in Oxon Hill, Maryland, where he twice raped a woman after pistol-whipping, knifing, and binding her fiancé. This crime influenced the 1988 presidential election, and the Democratic Presidential Candidate, Michael Dukakis, who was then governor in Massachusetts, was tarred and feathered, and of course the rest is history.
When we look at the above cases, we must remember that they were crimes by individuals, and pretty much the exception, and that our criminal justice system is supposed to punish people for their individual moral culpability. These cases though impact everyone in the criminal justice system, and a form of communal punishment is meted out when the pendulum reverts back to punitiveness that seemingly touches everyone. Indeed, shortly after such crimes are committed, the rate at which people are granted parole is dramatically reduced, regardless of their rehabilitation and readiness for release. Nonetheless, the reality is that more than 90 percent of people in prison will eventually be released. This includes people convicted of violent and nonviolent crimes. How they return to their communities will have a lot to do with opportunities for transformation inside institutions, and opportunities to reintegrate into society upon their release.
Finally, The Justice Imperative states that there is an “imperative to act,” and that Connecticut, which not long ago was a pioneer for criminal justice reform, “can again lead the way toward the creation of a fiscally-responsible, far more effective, compassionate system of criminal justice and correction.” In following this imperative to act, The Justice Imperative provides the keys. There are 30 recommendations grouped into five categories: Legislative Changes; Executive Policies and Practices; Department of Correction Initiatives; Alternatives to Incarceration; and Improvement in the Re-entry Process.
“Dare to be great! Act on the Justice Imperative!”
William Eric Waters aka Easy Waters
— “I am a change agent for a just society.”
Follow on Twitter: @ezwwaters