Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Dreaming right, doing right. . .

Yesterday, I spent lunch time in the company of about 100 other folks, listening to a panel made up of  a defense lawyer, an assistant district attorney, the county sheriff, a retired judge, and an Eastern Mennonite University professor who was one of the founders of the field of Restorative Justice. They were talking about “better strategies against crime,” i.e. what can we do with people who break the law that’s more useful to the victim, society, and, indeed to the criminal, than just locking them up. (Harvey Yoder did last week's Civic Soapbox on the same subject, by the way)

First things first, as far as this blog post goes. Restorative Justice and victims' rights were terms that whizzed around the discussion like Tommy’s pinballs. Poking around on the EMU website this morning, I found an explanation of the term by panel member Dr. Howard Zehr: “Restorative Justice focuses on repairing the harm caused by and revealed by crime or wrongdoing. It seeks to involve those who have a stake in a specific offense (the victim, offender, family members, community, or others) to identify and address the harms, needs, and obligations of those involved in order to heal and put things as right as possible.”

HMMM. Putting things right sound great, doesn’t it?

Now, sadly, back to reality. The Rockingham County jail, which was built to house 220 inmates, regularly houses 320-350. Such an overcrowded jail is, according to Dr. Zehr (and, indeed it seemed to be the panel consensus) the result of our own societal expectations. If you build it, Dr. Zehr said, speaking of the jail, they will come. He pointed out that we spend a lot of society’s money on punishment (which may be cheaper short term), but very little investing in programs to treat substance addiction, create jobs, and attack other underlying causes of crime

Sheriff Don Farley pointed out, after listening to panel members talk, that restorative justice may indeed be the way to go, but all he can do is administer the system he’s been handed. His department, he said, works within a criminal justice system, not a victim justice system. The Rockingham County Sheriff Department doesn’t have the funds to focus on helping those injured by crime or to attack the underlying causes of crime. His department’s mandate is to identify criminals and keep them locked up

Defense attorney Gene Hart (roughly transcribed):
In tight budget times such as today, we tend to cut the programs that we know are useful in combating crime, such as drug court and drug treatment. We have to remember that the budget drives everything. It’s up to those of us who’d like to see programs such as monitored at-home sentencing and/or part-time incarceration to show they are cost effective. Some states are using federal stimulus money to expand home monitoring. If we want Sheriff Farley to run an electronic monitoring program, we have to find money. Drug treatment programs have a cost up front. We need to do a better job explaining that long-term savings ensue. We need to show policymakers that there is a cost to saving money today. Must learn not just to talk about what is good, but what is cost effective.
Assistant District Attorney Anthony Bailey (again a rough transcription):
If people want change from an existing system, they must work through their elected representatives. The people whom all of us vote for are the people who create the system. If you’re satisfied or not satisfied with the system, it’s your responsibility to fix it. Who are you voting for and what are you telling them before they go to Richmond and Washington? Don’t expect tough "law and order" elected officials to fund more treatment programs. Don’t say we in the sheriff’s office and the commonwealth attorney’s office don’t get it (the value of such alternatives to straight incarceration as treatment programs) because we do.
Judge John McGrath brought up the county’s litter collection program, started by Judge Paul, which allows lawbreakers to do community service on the weekends in lieu of jail time. It took patience and a bus, Judge McGrath said, on Judge Paul’s part to get this program going. And it's done a lot of good for both those involved in the program and the county.

Start small, he advised. Do what you can do, rather than waiting until you can do what you dream.

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1 comment:

  1. When Jennie Amison (director of the Gemeinschaft Home) offered during the forum to start a treatment program (something she does professionally) at the jail at no charge, Sheriff Farley replied that the jail has no room! He said there are various meeting areas used for religious services and other things (I don't know whether those include AA or NA meetings). Drug and alcohol addictions are considered very common among people who get incarcerated. Wouldn't there be a way to make room for a treatment program if there was the will to do it?