On incremental vs. radical change

Or, the frustration of the impatient

First you notice that something is wrong. Maybe it’s a statistic: the U.S. has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prisoners. Or a story: a teenager ends up labeled as a sex offender for something you agree was bad judgment, but not criminal; an innocent man is vindicated after decades of wrongful incarceration; a woman serves a drug sentence twice as long as her boyfriend’s because, not being actually involved, she has nothing to offer prosecutors in exchange.  

Then you start to hear more stories and learn more facts.  Mainstream institutions release reports documenting years, even decades, of evidence.  The sex offender registry does nothing to decrease recidivism and may actually increase it.  Longer sentences (“habitual offender” statutes) actually produce worse outcomes than shorter sentences for the same crime.  Murder has the lowest recidivism rate of any crime.

The story in Vermont

You learn that in Vermont, almost everyone behind bars is poor.  People of color are vastly over-represented.  Over half those locked up have mental health issues; almost all the women and most of the men have experienced trauma. Solitary confinement beyond 15 days is considered torture by the U.N., and yet a Vermont inmate can spend many months in “segregation.”  We ship nearly 250 men out of state to a private, for-profit prison.  Nearly 150 people eligible for release are behind bars for lack of approved housing.  You know most workers in the system are simply trying to do their jobs, which are unarguably difficult, but nonetheless, the list of problems goes on.  And the costs?  You learn that twice as much of your tax dollars go to Corrections as to higher education.

You’ve noticed it’s not a partisan issue.  Nationally, unlikely alliances proliferate.  The ACLU and the Koch Brothers.  Right on Crime and the Center for American Progress.  A White House panel of experts from the American Enterprise Institute, Brennan Center for Justice and others all agreed with a cost-benefit analysis (April, 2016) from the President’s Council of Economic Advisors: what we’re doing isn’t working. Long incarceration is counter-productive. If we’d kept sentences the same as they were in 1985, we’d have fewer people in prison now, not three times as many.

And yet, in Vermont, the legislature continues to increase penalties every year—this year, in S.154, for assaulting a social worker.  It makes no sense.  

So what’s up?

As a thoughtful citizen, you start to wonder, what’s keeping this system in place when it’s so obviously broken?  What about the alternatives? And then, Is there anything I can do?

Now you’ve become an advocate.  And here’s the tension for advocates. Do you call for radical or incremental change?  Do you talk about Norway, getting rid of the sex offender registry, closing the women’s prison, or do you work to ensure children are not handled in adult prisons, which should be easy?  You know real change happens slowly, bit by bit, until it reaches a tipping point, when suddenly things seem to happen faster, though the groundwork may have been laid for years. But what about when very little progress happens at all? 

You might know that of the three bills VCJR and its coalition partners developed this year, two passed the House, but seem about to die in the Senate. (One of them would advance racial justice in Vermont; the other would allow potentially earlier parole of older (expensive), low-risk inmates.) You wonder, What’s the problem? Why isn’t more happening?

You know it’s just “politics.”  But it’s disappointing.

The alternative

For your sanity, you try to take the long view.  The national conversation is louder, and in Vermont some strong candidates who care about this are running for public office.  VCJR couldn’t get its “technical violations” bill taken up (to prohibit re-incarceration for non-criminal acts) but even without it, Vt.’s Dept. of Corrections made some internal policy changes so that fewer people are being re-incarcerated for missing an appointment or missing their curfew.  VCJR’s conversation about closing the women’s prison is gaining momentum.

You keep in mind a vision of what’s possible—the alternative that actually exists elsewhere, so you know it’s not a fantasy, even though American conditions of poverty, anti-government rhetoric, gun culture and other obstacles make it hard to bring about.  It’s not an unreasonable goal, just distant. 

You envision a system that’s truly restorative.  Not punitive.  One that offers both supports and interventions—because sometimes people need to be removed from harmful environments. You think of Norway’s best prisons, New Zealand’s restorative practices, even the reparative panels that exist in Vermont communities.  You imagine a system where government doesn’t impose suffering and instead ensures equal opportunity and removes obstacles to success.  You imagine your community offering a response to interpersonal harm that is not punishment-based (because punishment never helped anyone), but rather addresses needs. What does the “victim” need? What does the “offender” need? What does the community need?  This requires a large-scale transformation, but you know the work hasn’t just started; it began years, decades, centuries ago.  

We at VCJR join you in this vision of radical compassion.  The frustrations are not insignificant, but the potential is great.  In the coming year we’ll be working for small reforms and whole-scale transformation, whenever and wherever we can.  Together. 

Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform
PO Box 8753, Burlington, VT 05402
(802) 540-0440

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Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform 
is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization

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