reconciling retribution & redemption to transform the world

Opportunities for change and making a meaningful difference in the world are all around us and in any moment new possibilities are born.  Sustaining the momentum of social change requires long term commitment and cannot be achieved in isolation.   A primary driving force of social change is economic viability which makes this an opportune time to explore criminal justice reform possibilities.

Locally, death penalty opponents continue to engage the public in discussions to eliminate capital punishment.  Utahns for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (UTADP) was formed in 2009 and is affiliated with the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

The coalition website includes a wealth of information about the death penalty that is timely and pertinent to this important public policy.  Several notable excerpts from the UTADP position paper (available here) are included here:

The costs of successfully executing a criminal defendant are staggering. Data compiled for more than 25 years in virtually all of the states studied consistently show that itcosts millions more to execute someone than to keep them in prison for life. The Future of America’s Death Penalty 411 (Carolina Academic Press 2009).

We are encouraged in our hopes of building a broad coalition in Utah by the example of a 1989 interfaith statement regarding the death penalty on the Occasion of Lighting the Torch of Conscience. At that time twenty major religious groups throughout the country expressed their concerns with capital punishment in words that capture the views of so many in Utah’s religious communities:

“We believe that the imposition of the death penalty is inconsistent with our religious values, which include respect for human life, nonviolence, restoration and reconciliation, and the message of God’s redemptive love.

We believe that each human is created in the image of God, and thus we believe in the inherent worth of human life and the inalienable dignity of the human estate. The value of human life is not contingent on the moral rectitude of human beings or human institutions.

It is cruel, unjust, and incompatible with human dignity and self-respect. We cannot isolate ourselves from corporate responsibility for every execution, as well as for every victim.

We believe that there are more humane, more effective ways of reducing violent crime. However, our society’s false confidence in the effectiveness of the death penalty obscures attention to causes of crime and distracts from efforts needed to find alternative ways to deal with crime and with the improvement of the criminal justice system as a whole. We acknowledge our responsibility to address ourselves to wider issues of systemic injustice.”

Criminal justice issues are gaining momentum as the economic crisis continues and government officials begin looking to optimize tax dollars.  Information relative to the local debate of  the death penalty are provided here,here, and here

In this moment of time, as a society, we are presented with unique opportunities to make a meaningful difference in social policy and to reform aspects of the criminal justice system that are not working or otherwise ineffective.  Bringing an end to capital punishment is one of those necessary reforms.  Other necessary reforms include the use of incarceration as a primary crime deterrence tool.

Incapacitating those convicted of crime only works as long as they are incarcerated.  Extending the length of incarceration does nothing to promote public safety when those leaving prison are ill-prepared for their return to society or when the communities to which they return are ill-prepared to accept them.

In a Bloomberg Businessweek article dated August 19, 2009 entitled Utah panel recommends changes to save $10M a year (available here) references the report and recommendations compiled by the Utah Advisory Commission to Optimize State Government that could save the state an estimated $10 million each year.

The report focuses on three core areas: increasing educations use of online courses, reconfiguring employee compensation and reducing prison expenses.  The recommendations for reducing correctional costs include building a parole violator center to reduce inmate recidivism, studying whether to open a geriatric prison facility to reduce housing and medical costs, and re-evaluating sentence lengths.

Evidence of the gaining momentum in criminal justice reform is available here

The numbers and results of programs such as the Utah State Prison’s Con-Quest substance abuse program may make programs tailored to gangsters living in the prison and those out on parole a viable option.

and the need for reform is available here

The Utah State Prison staffers give Julian their usual goodbye for inmates: “We’ll keep the light on for you.”

The attitude reflected in the foregoing quote is indicative of the broken system and revolving door nature of the criminal justice system.  Instead of preparing the inmates or the community for reentry we place barriers in their path as portrayed in a recent Salt Lake Tribune article (available here) and previous posts available here and here.

What might happen if we embraced the opportunities for change before us?  Might we change our results by changing the manner in which we deal with those convicted of crime?  What if our social policies were actually aligned with our professed moral beliefs “which include respect for human life, nonviolence, restoration and reconciliation, and the message of God’s redemptive love.”

Would we make a meaningful difference in the world if we were to embrace redemption as passionately as we have embraced retribution as a criminal justice model?