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Molly Rowan Leach Headshot

American Justice -- For Profit Prisons or Truth?

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A moment in time that nobody expected: the marriage of a football stadium and naming rights with for-profit private prison industry the GEO Group. At this writing, a huge wave of utter discontent and amazement that something like this would ever occur is making waves across the internet and was featured recently in the New York Times.

GEO Group Inc., is the nation's second-largest private prison conglomerate traded on the NYSE (GGI), with 1.6B in profits per annum and growing. GEO just spent $6 million to sponsor the Florida Atlantic University football stadium, with its name in the spotlight. Is this really what our criminal justice system has come to? It is reminiscent of a scene out of the Hunger Games.

This is only one of many discouraging indications of just how backwards and corrupt our criminal justice system has become over the last few decades. The Prison Industrial Complex has grown to behemoth status complete with REIT tax benefits reaping Real Estate interests, and is now one of the nation's largest industries. The prison system and prison unions are also one of the nation's most powerful lobbying forces, working to make more money by pushing harsh policies and longer sentences, while offering cash money to States who are willing to sign in blood that they'll keep their beds 90% full and contract for terms of 30 years or more. And as the latest news on GEO shows, they are looking for creative ways to promote themselves and their punitive worldview in a drive to become ever more entrenched in our society.

That being said, America is also in the midst of an encouraging transformation, shifting away from our broken and often inhuman criminal justice system. Side by side, a system of punishment and corporate interest that GEO helps lead, dies slowly and quite resistantly, as simultaneously a systemic transformation occurs, implementing powerful new ways of doing justice: Restorative Justice.

It cannot be underlined or highlighted enough just how close destruction and promise align in this moment in particular.

It evokes the absolute proximity of extremes--and the possible need for things to get so very bad in order for there to be, out of that clenching disparity and desperate dissonance, a new way that clambers forth by the bare hands of those passionate citizens and pioneers who know without doubt there is a better path forward--and further--that it is their efforts making it happen. They realize that this "new" form of Restorative justice is not new at all, but based on Indigenous practices that have been in practice for millennia, and a simple premise of making right, in the right way, that which has been wronged - healing our communities rather than tearing them apart.

In the past year the media has heightened its outing of the Criminal Justice System's true motivations, and although those who work within the justice and corrections industries are more often than not noble and good human beings, they too in many ways are victims of a system out of control.

Of note, and worthy of being repeated often, is the fact that the U.S. houses over 1/3 of the world's prisoners, and yet is less than 5% of the world's population. This statistic illuminates the 180-degree turn that Corrections made in the 1970's when there was unanimity that the US should downsize and close some of its prisons and put funding towards community services and appropriate programs for prevention. It was more recognized then that it is prisons that make criminals. Quote: "The American Correctional System today appears to offer minimum protection for the public and maximum harm to the offender." (NCJRS, 1973 Full Report). The diabolical U-turn that occurred not long thereafter brought private corporate interests into the picture -- a sinister turn that has resulted not only in companies such as Correctional Corporations of America and the GEO Group making hand over fist profits but also a severe discrimination towards African American and other minority young men and underserved or stigmatized groups in particular. Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, and a recent featured speaker on the Restorative Justice on the Rise national tele-council series, writes:

"The fate of millions of people--indeed the future of the black community itself--may depend on the willingness of those who care about racial justice to re-examine their basic assumptions about the role of the criminal justice system in our society."

Not far behind are those who have mental illness and are unfortunate enough to find that the United States somehow seems to think that prisons are de facto asylums--because the stats now show that they in fact are. Although statistics of truth are hard to come by from those from within, it has been estimated by NAMI (The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill) that at least 1 of every 4 incarcerated is mentally ill, 1 of every 5 with a serious condition. In a fairly recent report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, these statistics are grimly unpacked. The cost to keep a "medical" prisoner incarcerated? Anywhere from 55K to 100K per year. Prisoners with mental illness cost the nation an average of nearly $9 billion a year.

Statistics, quotes, citations and facts aside, there is a basic question that resides unspoken in our common humanity: that of punishment's efficacy. The foundations of the current system manifest themselves via the channel of a punitive lens. This lens frames how things are made right, how it is supposed to look, and how the attitudes of officials, judges, political interests, and those who stand guard shape their actions and beliefs into the hard form of sentences and normalization of what are more and more often egregious human rights violations right under the American public's nose. If we really think with our best wisdom that punishing makes things right, let's look at the statistics emerging from the Restorative Justice movement, and the framework for systemic change it offers:

Restorative justice is not about getting anyone off the hook, but rather is about making real and right what has occurred when wrong happens--even in violent cases. It opens the door to the humanity of wrong-doing, and involves all stakeholders in its processes, including the community. Statistics out of the powerful Longmont Community Justice Partnership (CO) programs have a 92% success rate with youth offenders not re-offending after going through Restorative processes and programs. Even Officer Greg Ruprecht of the Longmont Police Department describes aptly his initial doubts of Restorative Justice, as a hard trained officer believing in the eye for eye way of affecting justice, whose opinion fast transformed to one of complete support and enthusiasm for Restorative Justice and the fact he no longer sees the same likely suspects re-offending and re entering the restless self-reciprocating cycle of the current system.

There are many global examples of Restorative justice employed as primary modes for Corrections and Law Enforcement . Here in the United States, cities and counties across the country, from San Francisco to city, FL, are fast implementing restorative practices alongside the traditional models -- to great effect. The Longmont Community Justice Partnership and Colorado Representative Pete Lee have made great headway implementing (HB 11-1032) In Oakland, Sujatha Baliga and the National Council on Crime and Delinquency tackle restorative processes day to day with rapidly growing success. In Baltimore, the Community Conferencing Center headed up by Lauren Abramson provides innumerable services, focusing particularly on youth. In Seattle, Attorney Andrea Brenneke convened a process with stakeholders after a sculptor was senselessly murdered by a police officer, and made headway with LE and Govt officials in the power of Restorative circles. In Brazil and worldwide, Dominic Barter has brought the work of Restorative Circles to a global movement. And there's New Zealand, where their juvenile system is, among other facets, run in the Community Conferencing model, and for whose results have shown fiscal success and savings, a huge decrease in recidivism, and efficacy even in the most violent of cases. This happens because all affected have a stake in how the wrong is made right, or at least in how the offender will begin to make right.

Restorative justice does not coincide necessarily with forgiveness, or ever excusing or saying that a crime is ok. It rather is very much about creating appropriate conditions for all involved to be active in discerning the most appropriate path ahead and for, perhaps most importantly, the meaning and effect of the crime to be stated clearly.

Restorative justice also saves money. For example, it costs on average at least 30K per year to incarcerate someone. Growing statistics show that 75-90% of offenders do not re-offend and are not seen again by law enforcement or corrections officials if Restorative Justice is in place (www.lcjp.org of Longmont,CO, USA; also check New Zealand Juvenile program stats). By offering diversion programs and by partnering with Police Departments and officials within both Law Enforcement and in some cases Corrections, communities are walking forward together in showing just how much sense Restorative justice makes.

A death knell is sounding in the United States--it is that of the paradigm that punishment works and that of the complacency that we all have been mostly unknowing and complicit in to support an industry motivated by something other than what it proclaims itself to be. And we can be sure the prevailing forces of the moment, headed up by groups like GEO, will not go down without a well funded fight. Nevertheless, we are perched at a nexus in our human story in this relatively young country--where it is the power of the people on the ground, standing for truth and what justice truly represents--that will tip us beyond this conflagration. And out of these current fires, and unfortunate human sacrifices, something new is in its birth-throes: a system of justice that exemplifies humanity, does not underestimate the weight of crime and wrongdoing, but provides a system and platform whose simple premise is the allocation of shared responsibility and truth telling and a transmission of meaning around cause and affect, which in its own process metes out the most profound justice of all.