Monthly Archives: February 2012

Nurturant parent politics: reframing to promote transformative justice

I recently gave a brief presentation in transformative justice to four people I didn’t know. Since TJ is so incredibly unlike the traditional criminal justice system and because I didn’t want to leave these four people thinking I was a nutcase, I framed the discussion around two hypothetical situations:

A stranger breaks into your car and steals your car radio –  what would you do?

Your brother, sister, child, or parent breaks into your car and steals your car radio – what would you do?

This seemed like a good way to get people rethinking responses to crime. I figured that people would be more interested in thinking creatively and addressing individual situations if they had an investment in what happened to the offender. I also figured that more people would want to know (and deal with) why the crime was committed in the second scenario. That’s transformative justice, baby.

Ironically, three days later by complete chance I happened upon Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate by George Lakoff. Surprise! There’s an actual foundation of knowledge for what I was doing.

Have you ever heard of the “strict father” and “nurturant parent” models? I sure hadn’t. But I was inadvertently doing exactly what Lakoff argues we (progressives) have to do – among other things – if we’re going to appeal to the masses: Take a strict father viewpoint and reframe it around a nurturant parent viewpoint.

In a nutshell, the strict father model works like this: a strong male figure makes the rules, punishes anyone who disobeys, and doesn’t engage in dialogue or ask permission for jack. Individual success and competition is viewed as the hallmark of national progress. Anyone who threatens that model, tries to help the “bad” children who deserve their lot in life for failing to make a lot of money and achieve traditional success, is actually hurting themselves and everyone else by getting in the way of discipline, order, and morality. Within this framework, things like free drug treatment programs, welfare, affirmative action, etc. are detrimental to the natural development and success of the nation’s “children” (literal and figurative), who will actually learn and thrive through punishment, not support.

In contrast, the nurturant parent framework looks like this: gender neutral parent figures support their “children” by empathizing, understanding their needs, and providing resources to meet those needs. They believe children need safety and support to thrive, as well as freedom to learn on their own and actualize their own potential. Basic tenets are empathy and responsibility.

I think that analysis is pretty boss, frankly, because all of a sudden I get why abortion and gay marriage matter so much to conservatives. I get why our foreign policy seems to center around doing whatever the hell we want, and even when our interests are in agreement with an agreement, not signing anything anyway. Y’all should probably read that book.

It really, really is not rocket science to figure out what this has to do with the prison system. What I accidentally hit on for my little presentation was that our current system runs within the strict father model; transformative justice aligns with the nurturant parent model: What went wrong? What can we do to prevent this in the future? What is my (or my community’s/state’s/country’s) responsibility to aid in that prevention?

The truth is, everyone can understand both structures. Most people utilize both structures at different times, but even if you only use one you certainly encounter both in books and movies and your neighbors’ lives and your children’s schools and on and on. Which is dope for two reasons: because conservative viewpoints now seem more like differences of opinion to me than outright craziness, and because now I know that everyone can understand transformative justice when it’s presented in the right framework.

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Jails increasingly act as mental health care facilities

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart says that the Illinois mental health system “is so screwed up that I’ve become the largest mental health care provider in the state of Illinois.”

Dart’s statement comes at a time when the state is planning to shut down six of its twelve mental health centers by the end of April. Though the reduction is expected to save the state 2 million dollars, critics believe the costs to everything from prisons to emergency rooms will far exceed the short term savings. Not to mention the costs to those suffering from mental illness – costs that will manifest themselves both economically and otherwise.

Of the 11,000 or so prisoners at the Cook County Jail, Mr. Dart estimates that 2,000 people suffer from mental health problems. Many of these 2,000 are jailed for minor crimes but commit new infractions due to stress and confusion and see their short sentences run on and on. Corrections officers spend far more time with their mentally ill charges than with the general population, and receive only limited training.

Corrections officers and administrators don’t want people with mental illness to be in jail. People with mental illness don’t want to be in jail. People in jail don’t want people with mental illness in jail. So why are they in jail?

“Because [the police department] is the only place left to call,” suggests Amy Watson, associate professor at the Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois, Chicago.

Fancy that: a situation in which instead of addressing a problem, we choose to hide it behind bars.

Resources for people struggling with mental illness were already scarce. Cutting them in half means that waiting lists will be longer, access will be more limited, and existing services will be over-extended.

And when the mentally ill are incarcerated? Problems abound for prisoners and officers alike. Incarcerated people who are mentally ill are more likely to refuse to follow orders or even act out violently against CO’s. In response, CO’s are more likely to throw mentally ill people in solitary confinement, which frequently exacerbates the problems they are already experiencing. In fact, mentally ill people in solitary confinement make up the majority of prison suicides. This is especially sad when one considers that these suicidal people are often in jail in the first place because of simple drug possession or vagrancy.

And if they are released, they typically leave with up to two weeks of their medication. In addition to the challenge of finding a health provider who can renew their prescription, many of them are uninsured, and will have to wait at least 45 days for Medicaid approval. And that’s just one aspect of the enormous challenge that mentally ill people face upon re-entry. Thus it is no surprise that mentally ill folks are among the most likely to recidivate.

Check out the NYT article here.

Or hear from people with mental illnesses during a similar reduction in services that Texas went through a year ago in this video from the Texas Tribune.

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Social work and the future of juvenile justice

The vast majority of young people who end up involved with the criminal justice system come from marginalized communities. They very frequently have parents who are absent from their lives because they’re forced to work long hours at multiple jobs, struggling with mental health problems, addicted to drugs or alcohol, incarcerated, or for other reasons. Many violent youth offenders are victims of physical and sexual abuse, while property crimes and involvement with illegal economies (drug dealing, in particular) are often the result of trying to improve a low standard of living for themselves and their families.

A recent study published in Social Work, a journal for the National Association of Social Workers, recognizes the importance of the structural factors that underpin much of the crime committed by youth in the U.S. In “Social Work and Juvenile Probation: Historical Tensions and Contemporary Convergences,” Clark Peters traces the gradual divergence between probation offices and social workers over the last hundred years.

“The correctional system affects individuals and communities at the heart of social work’s efforts: people who are poor and people of color,” Clark writes. “Yet social work has an almost negligible presence in the key roles of this domain.”

Why the separation? Clark presents several explanations, but foremost among them is the transition from the juvenile justice system’s original purported goal of intervention and support for youth offenders to its current emphasis on individual failure. As Clark explains, “The court’s focus on personal culpability did not allow offenders to externalize blame.” In short, each offense is viewed as an insular occurrence and the result of the child’s bad judgment and even their bad character. Sound familiar?

That pretty much sums up the recent history of juvenile justice in the U.S., but is it possible that we’re at the brink of some kind of turning point? Beyond simply using the skill set and perspective of a social worker to help individual kids, Clark concludes with the suggestion that social workers might have a broader impact on the criminal justice system as a whole. He writes that some commentators today “[call for] a role for social workers in reforming a punitive system that is hostile to the communities that social workers purport to serve.”

“Commentators in this vein argue that social workers should advocate for ‘fundamental change’ in the corrections system, and that failure to do so is an implicit endorsement of the nation’s correctional policies and tantamount to ‘professional incompetence.'”

So – exciting new horizon for the role of social workers in juvenile justice? Or the opinions of a few lone rangers whose views will never be reflected in reality?

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New Jersey diversion program sparks familiar debate

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is promoting the use of treatment before prison for low-level drug offenders. Though Christie promotes this as a money saving venture and is interested in diverting only the lowest-level offenders, it’s still lovely to see any moves away from expanding the prison system.

Ironically, the most significant objections to this move come from advocates for addicts. Elizabeth Thompson of the New Jersey Drug Policy Alliance argued, “It takes months for the general population to get help, but if you get arrested you’d get help more quickly. I question the fairness of that.” Check out the story here.

True dat, Ms. Thompson. But what’s the real problem here: that people who have committed crimes might receive the kind of assistance that would allow them to stay drug – and crime – free? Or that New Jersey has thus far failed to provide enough resources for everyone to get the help they need in a timely manner?

Fifteen years ago, a similar debate went on in New York state. Corrections Officer unions were up in arms about the public education grants that incarcerated people were receiving which made college education in prisons a possibility. CO’s in New York facilities were cheesed off that incarcerated people were getting free college educations while they couldn’t afford to send their children to college.

Instead of this race to the bottom in which no one wins, Thompson and other critics should be asking why the government can’t shell out money for drug treatment resources for all. Certainly if they weren’t paying to incarcerate roughly 7,000 drug offenders they’d have some extra bill$ to throw around.

Oh, and the folks who objected to the use of public education grants for incarcerated people were successful. Grants for higher education were revoked, and college programs were pulled out of correctional facilities state wide. I’m pretty sure that the working class still has just as much trouble paying for their kids’ education, but on the bright side at least we’re not coddling those darned criminals anymore.

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357 die in Honduras prison fire

357 people are dead in the wake of a fire that broke out in the prison in Comayagua, Honduras.

The prison housed over 800 people, which is well beyond its capacity. Officials believe the fire was either started by a short circuit in the electrical system, or by an incarcerated man setting fire to his mattress.

Can you imagine anything worse than being helpless, locked in a cell, as the prison fills with smoke? Maybe having your husband, brother, son, or father die that way.

Read more here.

 

 

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Chicken soup for the prison abolitionist’s soul

Transformative justice sees crime as an opportunity to build a more caring, more inclusive, more just community. Safety doesn’t lie in bigger fences, harsher prisons, more police, or locking ourselves in till we ourselves are prisoners. Safety and security – real security – come from building a community where because we have cared for and included all, that community will be there for us, when trouble comes to us. For trouble comes to us all, but trouble itself is an opportunity.

- Ruth Morris, Stories of Transformative Justice, p 21

Ruth Morris was a Canadian activist, scholar, and Quaker. She was at the forefront of the early prison abolition movement, and a founding member of the International Conference on Prison Abolition (ICOPA) which is one of the most prominent abolitionist groups working today.

All of that would be reason enough for me to read what she wrote, but the reason that I really get all hot and bothered for Ruth Morris is that she worked in non-profits her whole life, regularly spending time with the people she was advocating for. We live in a world where that’s easy to avoid, and she didn’t. Boss.

So rewind for a second to me a year ago at my teeny tiny coffee shop table, reading Morris’ Stories of Transformative Justice. Pretty soon I was embarrassing the heck out of myself, because I was crying in public. Not eyes watering, dabbing at the corners crying, but tears-and-snot-everywhere crying. It was pretty gross, but it was totally justified because the stories were so moving. I’ll synopsize an example:

One of the stories that Morris tells is about a family with a six-year-old boy. This boy is charming, loving, adored by his parents and his teacher. Then, one day he leaves a little late from school. He is crossing the cross-walk by himself, and a car comes racing around the corner. Either the driver doesn’t see him there, or he can’t stop in time. He hits and kills the six-year-old, leaving his parents childless.

Obviously the parents are crushed. And angry. Angry at God, and fate, and the idiot 16-year-old kid who thoughtlessly drove well over the speed limit past an elementary school.

As Morris tells it, that night the father is absolutely beside himself with grief and anger, and doesn’t know what to do. And then something clicks. One life is over: his little boy will never come back. But now another life stands to be lost as well.

The man goes to his wife and tells her what he wants to do. There isn’t anything they can do for their son now, but maybe there is something they can do for the sixteen-year-old who killed him. And his wife agrees.

The couple petitions the court to drop the charges against the young man. He is grateful, and incredibly remorseful. But they don’t stop there. They also give him a part-time job at the man’s business, and eventually help pay his way through college. He becomes a regular fixture at holidays, a member of their family.

This is a story Morris read in a Canadian newspaper, though to my ears it sounds almost biblical. It is an incredible thing to imagine offering emotional and economic support to the person who killed your son, but it is also clear that what everyone gained from that situation far outstrips what anyone would’ve have gotten from a prison sentence.

Transformative justice takes a lot of forms, but whenever I think about it now my first thought is about two parents who are willing to not only forgive but to love the person who killed their only child, and who gain so much from that willingness.

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The sunny side

About a year ago now, I was feeling cranky. I was up to my armpits in my thesis project, writing about transformative alternatives to incarceration for young women. Or at least, I was supposed to be writing about transformative alternatives, but it turns out that in order to talk seriously about transforming something you really need to explain the necessity for transformation first. So actually I was writing a thesis on all the ways that young women (specifically poor, young women of color) get royally screwed by the criminal justice system, the detention system, and society as a whole. I know it sounds like a party, but it was actually getting to be a downer.

One night I tossed about six books and a ginormous notebook and my laptop into a bag and hauled it out to a coffee shop. I precariously balanced my laptop, notebook, and (obviously) black coffee and 7,986 calorie “snack” on a table built for one half of a person, and chose a book at random from my stack.

Ruh roh. This book looked real cheesy. I had gotten it through interlibrary loan (yay, libraries!) because it was one of about two books ever to have the words “transformative justice” in the title, but come on! I was writing a serious thesis here!

OK, so I think you know where I’m going with this. I opened the book exclusively to confirm my suspicions and eliminate something from my devastatingly long list of shit-I-have-to-read, and I was hooked. Truth be told, it was kind of cheesy, but in the best possible way.

Because I have a lot to say about this book, the ideas it discusses, and the oh-so-incredible author, Ruth Morris, I’m going to save the stories themselves for a later date. For now, I’m going to leave you with a brief description of transformative justice, straight from the horse’s mouth.

Transformative justice uses the power unleashed by the harm of a crime to let those most affected find truly creative, healing solutions. Transformative justice includes victims, offenders, their families, and their communities, and invites them to use the past to dream and create a better future.

As someone who is a little bit preoccupied with action steps, my immediate thought was, “That’ll never work.” And that’s why I spend all my time whining about what’s wrong with the current system. Because we can’t forget that the current system doesn’t work. There’s no real evidence that it reduces crime significantly or increases public safety. And in the meantime, it’s hurting a whole lot of people in a whole lot of ways. Thus, dismissing transformative justice outright just because it doesn’t sound feasible is not an acceptable reaction given our current context. So if you are, stop that right now!

But I’m sounding like Negative Nancy again, so I’m gonna shut up. Come back for story time tomorrow.

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Great expectations

There are a whole lot of things that contribute to America’s crazy prison population. One of the many nutso things that we do is throw tons of people back into prison for parole violations. These violations include breaking a 9 pm curfew, leaving the state without getting permission, drinking alcohol, and other things which sound more like things your parents would get pissed about than things for which you should go to jail.

On my first day at the transitional housing facility where I worked, there were eleven people living in the house. That was Friday. When I came back the following Monday, there were five people left. What happened? Six of the residents decided to pick up a couple of six packs. The residence supervisor called the cops, and the six parole violators were scooped up and deposited back in jail. They were only in for a couple of days, but by then they had lost their chance to live in the place where I was working, which meant that they were stuck renting a room in one of several rooming houses in the area. Those places were far more expensive and offered none of the support resources that my place did, and they were notorious hotbeds of drug activity to boot.

Definitely stupid to have the little party – they knew it was against the house rules and the parole regulations – but don’t you think those consequences are out of proportion to the action?

New York State recently shifted their policy a wee bit in this area: as of Jan. 1, parole violators are no longer subject to mandatory jail time for their errors. Now the judge or parole board can take various criteria into consideration, such as mental health and access to stable housing. This is a step in the right direction, but it means that judges or parole boards have the option to forego jail time, not that violators have any real protection.

Like so many other aspects of the prison system, it’s easy in this situation to imagine that people are just asking for it when they violate. But what if instead of looking for the best way to punish people for their mistakes, we started looking for the best way to help them not screw up? My guess is that jail time would fall out of the equation real fast.

Check out the NYT piece on this issue here.

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Fruit for thought: The War on Drugs

It’s comforting to think that the War on Drugs is fought something like the Civil War: an army of American cops and judges and politicians bands together to take down a rebel army of foreign and domestic meanies who are bringing drugs and trouble into this country so that they can afford in-ground pools and classic cars. Each army hauls out their  muskets and as long as we keep throwing money at the War on Drugs our criminal justice system shall prevail.

Tragically, I don’t believe that there really is a neatly organized Drug Army out there just waiting for some tricky-ass general to take them by surprise after a nice long Christmas bender (or something like that). As Kentucky State Justice Secretary J. Michael Brown put it:

“I don’t think we’re getting the worst drug lords into the prisons. We’re just getting the people who went out and got caught. It’s the low-hanging fruit.”*

So much for the Civil War model. Maybe the War on Drugs looks more like this:

Charming illustrations aside, I would be one sour grape if I was the low-hanging casualty in the War on Drugs. Since we haven’t figured out a great way to stop drug use or drug-related violence through penalizing the fruit, mayhaps it’s about time to try something different?

*I pulled that quote from the Pew Center’s wonderful report “One in 100: Behind Bars in American in 2008.” Check it out for terrific facts and figures.

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To (selectively) serve and protect

18-year-old Ramarley Graham was shot and killed by a police officer on Thursday, after police pursued him into his home. Apparently when he was shot he was in the process of flushing a small amount of marijuana down the toilet.

I bet being a police officer is some scary shit. Your whole profession – especially if you work in high crime areas – revolves around being in (potentially) dangerous situations.

One time I was in a potentially dangerous situation. A friend and I were walking home one evening when three people mugged us, one of whom pointed a gun at us to ensure cooperation. I knew that the chances that that person would shoot me were pretty slim (I sure wasn’t going to put up a struggle), but it occurred to me that there was a really small chance that I might get shot, and frankly that really small chance was utterly terrifying. If I had had a gun and if I had thought it would maybe save my life to use it, it isn’t impossible for me to imagine that I might have.

So – did the police officer think that there was a really small chance that Mr. Graham was looking for a gun he had stashed behind the toilet? Or was he so full of adrenaline that he wasn’t thinking at all?

Police officers are awesome a lot of the time, but it does seem like they’re more likely to be awesome with someone who looks like Nancy Drew than someone who looks like Ramarley Graham.

The shooting of Ramarley Graham was the third time this week that a police officer shot a suspect – in New York City. Which makes me think that although it must be really scary to be police officers, it must also be really scary to be afraid of police officers.

Check out the NYT article for more details here.

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