Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Here We Go, Again!

©Wendell Griffen, 2015
Justice Is a Verb!
July 28, 2015

Yesterday Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson announced a plan to add 200 more prison beds to the already record number of people our state currently incarcerates.   The projected cost of doing that will be $7.4 million “above and beyond” $33 million approved to increase the number of prison beds, invest in more parole officers, and reduce the prison population by shuffling some prisoners to locations out of state.

I confess to being unimpressed, again.

I mentioned when Governor Hutchinson unveiled what he termed a plan for “criminal justice reform” earlier this year that the plan was unsound.  Governor Hutchinson’s approach, both with the announcement yesterday as with his plan earlier this year, follows the failed view that the nation (and Arkansas) will or should incarcerate ourselves into a healthier, safer, and more productive society.  We haven’t done so to this point.  Arkansas won’t do so by adding 200 more prison beds.

Instead of trying to find more places to warehouse people I have long argued that policymakers should ask hard questions about the people we intend to imprison and why we think they should be locked away.  We should and must imprison people who kill, maim, rape, rob, and terrorize their neighbors.  But we don’t have 20,000 murderers, rapists, assailants, armed robbers, and terrorists in Arkansas prisons

In fact, the leading cause for admission into the Arkansas Department of Correction (based on 2014 data) involved manufacture, delivery, or possession of controlled substances.  That category of offenses occurred almost three times more than theft of property.  Murder, rape, and armed robbery didn't even make it into the top ten causes for ADC admissions.

So the unpleasant truth Governor Hutchinson's approach doesn't address is that a substantial quantity of the prison population consists of people convicted of non-violent offenses associated with drug possession and dependency.  Governor Hutchinson could commute the prison terms of those persons and free them from incarceration, thereby freeing bed space for people who kill, maim, kidnap, rape, and rob others.   

However, commutation might cause people to start questioning all the money, time, and effort expended to capture, arrest, prosecute, convict, and imprison non-violent drug offenders as a colossal waste.  Perhaps we would begin to recognize the “war on drugs” as little besides a cruel pretext for legally disenfranchising black, brown, and poor white people for engaging in non-violent unhealthy conduct. 

$7.4 million dollars for prison beds won’t stop people from using drugs.  It won’t treat drug dependency.  It won’t provide jobs for people who’ve been incarcerated.  It won’t prevent the children and other family members of the 200 people who will occupy those beds from being more likely to slide deeper into poverty, become more socially, nutritionally, and culturally vulnerable.   It’s just another exercise in misguided policy-making under the guise of criminal justice reform.   It's an excuse to build more warehouses for people who are chemically dependent and mentally ill, although not dangerous, while complaining we don't have space to put people who are truly dangerous (killers, armed robbers, rapists, and otherwise violent).

There is nothing reformative about repeating old mistakes no matter who champions doing so. Arkansas needs more people in school, not jail.  We need more classrooms and teachers, not prison beds and guards.  We need more treatment facilities for people to access who are chemically dependent and for people who suffer from mental illness.  We need an approach to mass incarceration that doesn’t more incarceration, but involves education, job training and re-employment, affordable housing, and effective public interventions with people and families who are chemically dependent.

In other words, we must do something very different from what we’ve been doing if we hope to get different results.  Governor Hutchinson hasn’t offered anything different, only more of the same incarceration mindset responsible for our present predicament. 

Here we go again.  We have decided to run backwards, again, and call doing so “progress.”  

Tuesday, July 14, 2015


©Wendell Griffen, 2015
Justice Is A Verb!

It has been almost a month since the June 17 night-time massacre of nine black worshippers at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.  The alleged perpetrator of that terroristic act of mass murder, a 21 year old white man named Dylann Root, has been captured and jailed.  The family members of the slain valiantly confronted Root during court proceedings to express their pain and to offer prayers for his conversion from a person of hate.  They have buried their slain loved ones.  But they will forever bear soul-deep wounds.

One of the things that I found striking during President Obama’s eulogy for Pastor Clementa Pinckney was his decision to talk about grace and lead Reverend Pinckney’s grief-stricken widow, daughters, family members, congregation, community, and colleagues in singing the hymn “Amazing Grace.”  Mr. Obama delivered a moving eulogy.  He has a decent singing voice.  “Amazing Grace” is a wonderful hymn that holds special meaning for black churches and congregations. 

But as I watched Mr. Obama speak about grace and sing that “hymn of the church,” I reflected on what Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about “cheap grace” in The Cost of Discipleship.

Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. … Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. … The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything else can be had for nothing.

Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system.  It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian “conception” of God.  An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins. … In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin.
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance …

Ponder those words: “no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. … Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance.”

When has anyone expressed contrition about nurturing and perpetrating the systemic sin of racism and wicked tolerance for inequality that fed Dylann Root’s soul? 

When have we heard a word of repentance concerning the systemic and pervasive racism that still drives so much of life in South Carolina, the South, and the rest of the United States?

When President Obama sang about “Amazing Grace” he invited, inadvertently or intentionally, Pastor Pinckney’s grieving family, congregation, community, and the nation to embrace the “cheap grace” Dietrich Bonhoeffer denounced.  He did not stand before a grieving family and demand that South Carolina and our nation repent from systemic racism.  He did not demand repentance from people who built their personal, political, and cultural fortunes on white supremacy to insist that the victims of white supremacy not express righteous outrage at the latest example of the terrorism that stalks people of color every day. 

Mr. Obama sang “Amazing Grace.”  The congregation stood and joined the singing. 

And I wondered, who confessed to being lost?  Who confessed to being blind?  Who admitted the wretchedness mentioned in the very first words of that hymn?  Who named that wretchedness in the context of the massacre at Mother Emanuel?  Who accepted personal responsibility for being part of that wretchedness, supporting it, profiting from it, and pandering to it? 

Who repented?

What did the repentance involve?

When did the repentance happen? 

What does it mean when unrepentant people brazenly sing “Amazing Grace” in the face of horrifying evidence of their complicity with systemic racism and in the faces of a grieving widow, children, congregation, and community?