I once read a story about village justice in Bombay, India. A Hindu boy was caught fighting with a Muslim boy.
The town "judge," a man chosen by the community for his wisdom and leadership, told the boys they had to finish their work that day with their legs tied together. They would have to learn to work together. Then they had to learn a prayer by heart from the other's religion. What happened? The two boys became best friends.
No prison time. No elaborate court proceeding. No taking a bad situation and making it worse. Just some common sense, creativity and a clear goal: harmony.
For some people the word "justice" means "punishment." But the righteous man knows "an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind." That's not just Gandhi talking. That's reality.
The national rates of criminal re-offense after spending time in our world's largest prison system are atrocious. Generally speaking, over 40 percent failure across the board.
As the great author Michelle Alexander has reminded us in her book The New Jim Crow, mainstream common knowledge in the expert community has known prisons aren't a solution to crime and poverty since the 1970s.
Yet despite the facts, we're a prison-crazed society. The solution to all our problems ... put them in jail! Yet we forget what a horrible act of torture a prison is. Even for a day. Not only that, it doesn't do anything for us except serve the worst part of our selves -- the part that wants revenge. But a sustainable goal for justice cannot be to promote acts of revenge in our society.
The word "justice" comes from Latin: iustitia, meaning "righteousness, equity,"
Justice doesn't mean retribution. It doesn't mean revenge. Justice doesn't mean two wrongs make a right. Justice = equity. So how do we attain that equity and create harmony? Resolving conflict. Healing pain. Restoring mutual respect or creating it where there was none before.
Every step that we take that brings us closer to clear goal of harmony is a good step. And smarter sentencing is a great step in that direction, because it empowers judges to make independent decisions.
I have often wondered: do we want a society that follows only the rule of law? The law and what is right are often different things. How about the rule of love? Or the rule of "harmony" if "love" sounds too hippie for you?
Of course that would mean a totally different type of training for judges, courts, juries, "detention centers," police officers and so forth. It would mean conflict-resolution training, ethics training, respecting people and separating that from their actions -- a re-imagining of a criminal "justice" system from the ground up.
Like most who participate in the criminal justice reform movement, we've seen the miracles that creative restorative justice programs can have. We've seen the father of a daughter murdered by a former drug addict not only come to terms with, but became friends with her murderer after a radical transformation the father helped facilitate.
We've seen the mother of a drive-by shooter devote her life to reforming the lives of convicted murderers.
To us, these are not only the most uplifting stories we've ever seen, but true stories of human justice. And radically different from what our "system" creates. These stories have happened in spite of our system.
So why do we have mandatory sentencing? Politics at its worst. Misplaced revenge at best. Not justice. Smarter sentencing gives judges the power to make common sense decisions that could save someone's life. Let's start rebuilding a smarter justice system from the ground up. Justice is the work we do to create harmony. Let's leave the judgment and retribution to a higher power.
This blog post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and Charlotte Street Films in support of the Smarter Sentencing Act, which aims to reduce excessive sentencing for those convicted of drug-related crimes. To watch a video supporting the bill, watch here. To support the bill, read here. To see all the other posts in the series, read here.