Criminal Justice Reform Must Include Dignity   Leave a comment

PrisonI must confess I’ve always been a lukewarm supporter of the Koch brothers. I know … that makes me an enemy of trees and babies and bunnies … but meh … I don’t care! I’ve researched what they’re actually trying to accomplish and I agree with a fair amount of it. So, while you’re welcome to your half-formed opinions, you might want to gather some facts before you argue with me.

And, now I’ve found convergence on yet another issue.

The Rand Corporation reports that “more than 2 million adults are incarcerated in U.S. prisons,” with roughly 700,000 leaving federal and state prisons each year. There’s about a 40% recidivism rate among the released.

Brad and I have done a lot of jail ministry and seen the struggles behind this staggering statistic. What the heck are we doing, America?

Alaska recently reformed our sentencing laws, but before they even took effect, the legislature reinstituted most of the draconian system that has been the norm here for decades. So, my ears perked up when Koch Industries came forward with a vision of human dignity and individual liberty based on the restorative power of work. Maybe someone is finally getting the point.

How do we reform the criminal justice system to better help and support these individuals in recognizing their gifts and learning to leverage those gifts toward  meaningful work and relationships across society?

Koch Industries is not the only company reflecting on these needs, but they’re taking action and becoming a leading voice in the fight for criminal justice reform, involving an extensive lobbying toward public reforms and instituting changes in their hiring and training practices as a private business—a development that other businesses are beginning mirror.

In an interview with Barron’s, Mark Holden, Koch’s general counsel and leader of its various criminal justice efforts, explains how improving prisoner rehabilitation closely corresponds with an integrative vision of human dignity, individual liberty, and the restorative power of work.

“We’re focused on removing external barriers to opportunity for all Americans, particularly the least advantaged,” Holden explains.

We want a system that keeps communities safe, that is based on equal rights, that is redemptive and rehabilitative, and that provides for real second chances for people who break the law, are incarcerated, and return to society.

As a former jail guard himself, Holden has witnessed many of the problems firsthand, leading him to believe that America now has a “two-tiered system” that benefits the rich while the least powerful are shuffled and reshuffled through an impersonal and dehumanizing system.

Holden and Koch approach the issue through three distinct “lenses”—moral, constitutional, and then fiscal:

The moral case is basically the two-tiered system. I’m a big fan of public defenders, they are heroes, and the Sixth Amendment says that it’s a natural right that you have a lawyer. But 80%-plus of the people in the system need a lawyer and oftentimes don’t get one who can work on their case full-time, beginning to end. Then you come back out [with] a criminal record, which makes it difficult to get a job, to get housing, loans, the whole drill. The whole system, from our perspective, is immoral.

The constitutional case is based on the Bill of Rights: 40% of the Bill of Rights deals with criminal justice issues, whether that’s the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, or Eighth amendments.

Lastly is the fiscal case…States are responsible for their own budgets, and once someone starts to look at different line items in the state budget and sees how much they’re spending on incarceration, they want to peel back who’s in prison and why. That’s what’s happened in Texas, Georgia, South Carolina, Delaware, Michigan, and many other states… We say the fiscal case is the moral case, because when you stop spending so much money on incarcerating people, you have a lot more resources to pay for better education systems, roads, mental health issues.

Education is a critical part of the restorative journey, particularly as it relates to training and mentoring individuals for re-entry into the workforce. Opportunities could be created in a variety of ways, whether by granting organizations and businesses easier access to prisons or by simply shifting the thinking and hiring processes among private businesses on the “outside.”

All of this leads to greater access to work, which brings dignity and meaning to the individual, channeling creativity, and facilitating connection and relationships:

It’s good for the individual; having a good job is a big indicator that you won’t go back to prison. That’s better for society; [it saves] money, it keeps communities safer, and keeps law enforcement safer. We see it as a win/win/win, completely consistent with our philosophy about individual liberty, consistent with our view of what will make for a much more just, better society, and help people improve their lives, if it’s done right. The reforms in the states give us that road map.

Whenever you hire anybody, record or no record, it’s a risk. A criminal record is one data point. We’ve learned over time that just because someone has a criminal record doesn’t mean they’re a bad person. Now, with a tight labor market, there’s a lot more opportunity for people with criminal records, which is good.

Among the many barriers (or let’s just call them what they are — injustices) prisoners will continue to face—political, institutional, cultural, and otherwise—work is an area where real redemptive fruit is visible almost immediately.  For Koch Industries, it will require greater risk, vulnerability, and investment but God has given Holden and his employers the wisdom, relational capacity, love and grace to begin repairing the fragments of society at the ground level.

As we continue to fight for better policies and a more fair and equitable criminal justice system, let’s not forget the powerful role that work can play in facilitating personal journeys of restoration and rehabilitation in the everyday and everywhere in-between.

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