Too many in prisonBy Jesse Epp-Fransen
The United States has 8 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s prison population. About 2.2 million people are in prison in the U.S., a 500 percent increase over 30 years. The war on drugs is a big reason why.
More than half of the U.S. prison population in 2010 was convicted of drug-related crimes. For 30 years prison has been a primary tool to address drug use. This has not been successful.
Drug policy has begun to shift away from incarceration and toward treatment. Texas and other states have pioneered drug courts that focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment. The Office of U.S. National Drug Policy has recently committed to focusing on treatment as a way of decreasing both incarceration and drug use.
While the government begins to shift toward a more restorative model of justice, the church has been addressing the larger societal issues associated with incarceration.
The book What Will Happen to Me? provides stories and pictures of children who are affected by the criminal justice system by experiencing the incarceration of a parent. The book was released in 2011 by Howard Zehr, a professor at Eastern Mennonite University, and Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz, restorative justice coordinator for Mennonite Central Committee U.S.
These children, and the grandparents who often care for them, suffer because of a system that is broken and choices they did not make.
It is easy to get lost in the statistics about drug use and violent crime. But it is important to remember the consequences — not only for those who are locked up but also for those around them — of our choice as a nation to use prison so often.
Incarceration damages an entire community. Parents or siblings are missing during a time when they need to be caring for those around them — their children, ailing parents or ill siblings. Later, upon release, they frequently need support themselves. It is often difficult to reintegrate into a community after spending time in prison. These challenges contribute to the high rate of return to prison.
Much of MCC’s advocacy work on criminal justice focuses on promoting policies that will make re-entry smoother and therefore benefit the entire community.
Amstutz works often at the other side of the criminal justice system, training restorative justice mediators to provide an alternative to incarceration. Restorative justice assumes crime represents the brokenness of a community. It seeks a way to make that community whole.
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