The news last week that 1 in 100 Americans are currently in prison should shock every citizen of this nation. Our elected officials want desperately for us to feel “safe,” which really translates into being complacent and satisfied with the status quo. In fact, this trap of safety is what should appall us into action, as we watch another generation lose their futures and dreams in the bureaucracy of the criminal justice system.
No matter how one assesses this issue, a system that incarcerates 1% of your population for criminal activity is a failure. Every dollar spent on building prisons is a dollar not spent on education, health care and job creation. Every brick laid for prison walls is a 100 year commitment to maintaining a physical facility at a time when we are closing down mental hospitals, bridges are collapsing, and social service agencies scramble for dollars just to stay open.
If we agree that the current system is broken beyond repair, what is the answer? First, society must address the core basic needs of its people in order to prevent the roots of crime – economic injustice, hate, and lack of opportunities. Instead of mandatory sentencing, we should have mandatory funding for education and health care for every citizen. Every dollar spent on policing should be matched by at least a dollar on community development and economic improvements.
How would an intentional community handle this issue? Our intentional community is committed to nonviolence, so the top priority must be placed on dealing with crimes involving violence. But, what are the roots of violence? The best way to address violence is to live nonviolently in every aspect of life, which includes not only personal relationships, but economically as well. No one should earn money at the expense of another’s well being. Every citizen must receive equal treatment and access to services and freedoms. But, most importantly, every citizen should expect to contribute to the well-being of the communities and to their neighbors. These are expectations that should be taught from the youngest ages and accepted by everyone in the community regardless of age or ability.
Would we ever incarcerate anyone? Yes. But, only those whose repeated acts of violence show that they are presently incapable of normal social interaction. At that point, they give up their rights as equal citizens and enter into a mandatory program of treatment and training designed not to punish a criminal, but to truly reclaim a human being. For nonviolent offenders, there are many useful tasks that can be assigned as compensation to the community for their lawlessness. Forced labor is not cruel and unusual. Locking someone up in a tiny cell for years on end is cruel and unusual. Forced treatment and training is an infringement on absolute individual rights. But, it enforces the right of the community to survive and thrive which, in the end, best serves the rights of the individual as well.
Just as education is not solely the responsibility of professional teachers, the management of criminal acts is not solely the responsibility of trained law enforcement agents. We must reexamine our notions of justice and address every level of the system in order to better use our precious financial and human resources.