Throw Away the Key?

Book cover
Criminal Justiceby Edited by Rev. Michael Bryant and Eleanor Hannon JudahThe Haworth Press, Inc. 265p $39.95 hardbound, $29.95 paperback

For those interested in the world of incarceration in the United States, Criminal Justice: Retribution vs. Restoration serves as an excellent overview. Punishment now predominates, and we are reaping the whirlwind in the form of the highest incarceration rate in the world. Over two million human beings are behind bars in our jails and prisons. The authors of the book’s 13 chapters are criminal justice professionals. One of the editors, the Rev. Michael Bryant, is Catholic chaplain at the city jail in the nation’s capital and knows the system from the inside. The other editor, Eleanor Hannon Judah, a social worker, has also had direct experience working with incarcerated men and women. Like the writers of the individual essays, they believe that the harshly retributive stance that has made us world leaders in the numbers of people behind bars has led to a dead end. What is needed, they argue, is what has come to be called restorative justice—focusing less on punishment per se, and more on addressing the needs of the victim, the offender and the community in a manner that can bring greater wholeness to all three.

Why have so many men and women been locked behind bars since the 1970’s? (And children too: in one notorious case a few years ago, a 12-year-old boy was originally sentenced to life. The sentence was later overturned, and in January 2004, after serving three years in juvenile custody, he was released on bond.) Much of the responsibility for the high numbers can be traced to draconian laws enacted at both the state and the federal levels. Over the past three decades, legislators favoring a tough-on-crime approach enacted a series of mandatory-minimum sentencing laws. Certain crimes, especially drug offenses, automatically carry set penalties that judges must impose, whether they agree with the penalties or not. Among the most cruel are the so-called Rockefeller laws in New York State. Possession of one ounce—or the sale of two ounces—of heroin or cocaine brings an automatic minimum sentence of 15 years. Only in recent years has the harshness of these penalties begun to be questioned and in some instances (though not in New York) modified.


It is not difficult to imagine the impact of such legislation on family life. If the offender is a single mother facing years of separation from her children, she has little choice but to consign them to relatives, who are in many cases already overburdened, or to foster care. A million-and-a-half children have a parent in jail or prison, and the rate is especially elevated for African Americans. As Marc Mauer and Michael Coyle point out in the book’s lead chapter, “high rates of imprisonment in black communities impose a direct effect on family structure.” They give the example of “a fourth grader who is ‘acting out’ in class [because of] trying to cope both with the absence of a parent and the stigma brought upon a family.”

Though the numbers of incarcerated women are far fewer than those of men, their numbers have risen much more rapidly. The challenges they face after release are daunting. M. Susan Galbraith, executive director of Our Place, a community organization in the District of Columbia that assists women leaving prison, describes them in her chapter. If the woman’s offense was a drug felony, she is automatically denied public housing and food stamps as well. Low-cost housing and adequate food should be viewed as essential for a mother trying to pick up the threads of her life with her children after years in prison.

As for restorative justice, Kay Pranis’s chapter on that subject asks the question, does it work? Does it really help repair the harm done to the victim, the offender and the community? The growing approval—even in criminal justice circles—of one key aspect of restorative justice, victim-offender mediation, has demonstrated that it can be effectively used in nonviolent kinds of offenses. But what about violent crime? Though far more problematic, a number of cases of victim-offender mediation have resulted in profoundly positive changes in both victim and offender. In one chapter by a still-incarcerated man, the writer describes how he sought and received the forgiveness of a woman he had sexually assaulted, who later visited him with reconciliation in mind. In another, Marietta Jaeger Lane describes how she managed to forgive the man who had killed her young daughter during a family camping trip. She now works with Murder Victim Families for Reconciliation, a group composed of people who, though they have lost a loved one to murder, oppose the death penalty.

Restorative justice as a working concept is still in its infancy in the United States, but its promise—already explored at considerable depth among youth in Australia—offers hope. So too do the findings of research groups like the Rand Corporation in California regarding the destructive burden of mandatory-minimum drug sentences. One Rand study found that funds spent on drug treatment would reduce serious crime 15 times more effectively than imprisoning offenders. Implementing the results of research of this kind, and placing greater levels of trust in the principles of restorative justice, could eventually lead to a drop—rather than an ongoing rise—in our incarcerated population.

The make-up of this population is disproportionately African-American and Hispanic. Criminal Justice: Retribution vs. Restoration casts a grim but needed spotlight on the inequities of the criminal justice system in the world’s richest nation.

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