Can we change the fear and punishment narrative?

On Aug 29th, the Seattle Times published an article entitled Potential Release of Murderer angers Reichert, Prosecutor Satterberg.  The article goes into depth on the horrific details of the crime, which fuels the fear and punishment narrative that underlies the failed experiment of mass incarceration the last three decades.   Bryan Stevenson,[1] Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative and Professor of Law at New York University, who works with the condemned and incarcerated, writes and speaks eloquently on how to get us out of this failure.

Within Mr. Stevenson’s four-point plan[2] for social justice two points were critically missing from this article. One being lessons learnt by proximity.   No one is simply the worst thing they have ever done, even when it is as horrific as described in the article.   If we were to take the time and meet the men and women in this state who have committed violent crimes, we might learn a lesson ourselves and possibly gain greater understanding of how these people are not just the act that put them away for decades. We can all reflect on our own lives and know that we are not the same people we were 30 years ago. Some of us may have changed drastically while others may have changed only slightly, but all of us have grown and developed. Is that not the point of a release program, to determine if the person has indeed made significant changes while incarcerated?

This brings us to Mr. Stevenson’s second point, which is the critical need to change the narrative – one from retribution and punishment to justice and rehabilitation. In our current criminal justice system we are not providing any way for the person who commits a crime to make right with the person who was harmed. Instead we create adversaries, anger and bitterness. What if there was a way to utilize restorative justice principles for all parties who were impacted by the event to gain understanding and ultimately forgiveness?  The details of what Mr. Pauley has actually achieved while he has been incarcerated did not get a lot of airplay in this article but the details of the crime did. If we were to focus on justice and rehabilitation, would have been an entirely different article. The public would have been provided details on what the incarcerated person has been able to achieve despite the system not offering much in the way of programs to people who don’t have upcoming release dates.

What if we changed the narrative on this story to be one focused on rehabilitation and remorse instead of anger and fear? How might our feeling of public safety change? How might we be able to find better solutions to the financially unsustainable “solution” we currently have of warehousing people because our current narrative is based on unremitting anger?

 

[1] Mr. Stevenson and other EJI lawyers won the US Supreme court cases that have been instrumental in how Juvenile LWOP sentences are imposed within the US: Graham v. Florida (LWOP can no longer be imposed on juvenile’s sentenced for non homicide offenses) and Miller v. Alabama (mandatory LWOP for children under 17 or younger convicted of homicide is unconstitutional).

[2] Mr. Stevenson’s 4 points are 1) proximity 2) changing the narrative 3) be willing to do the uncomfortable and 4) orientate your spirit to hope that change can indeed occur.

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