Listening to SMART TALK on WITF, I was startled to hear the dean of the Penn State/Dickinson Law School describe justice as a commodity! Justice a commodity? Unfortunately, statistics confirm that description. In 1970, roughly 1 out of every 1000 went to prison in the US. Today we incarcerate more people than any other country in the world; approximately 1 out of every 107 US citizens! More than 65 million US citizens have criminal records. Add to that the 11 million hard working undocumented people living within our borders having no legal protections and we have a big problem!
Even for-profit prisons are beginning to recognize that our excessively high rates of incarceration and recidivism are bankrupting our nation, morally and financially. One unintended consequence of closing our mental hospitals is that many homeless and mentally ill end up in prison since they cannot get affordable treatment in their communities. Many inmates are learning disabled and/or alcoholics/addicts. Nor is it any wonder drug addiction is an epidemic when not only our media but our health care system holds up drugs as the seeming solution to our problems. And then there are our wounded warriors who end up incarcerated because of behaviors related to their post traumatic stress or brain injuries. Is this the kind of justice system and society we want?
Something is very wrong when huge corporations can buy elections making our elected officials more interested in job security than our nation's welfare. When Wall Street earns billions by cheating the public, caused the current economic downturn, and then have the audacity to whine about people wanting a living wage? When someone black or poor is incarcerated for possessing a ½ oz of marijuana but a Congressman gets a slap on the wrist for using cocaine?
Can we afford a justice system that sells justice as a commodity? Can we afford a justice system that sends the incarcerated to a hell in which they have no legal protections or rights? Can we afford a justice system that condemns anyone unfortunate enough to be incarcerated to a future in which 3 out of every 4 will be trapped in the revolving doors of recidivism because they will be released with untreated illnesses and addictions, crippling fines, little or no health care and because Congress passed a bevy of laws prohibiting ex-offenders from finding housing, receiving benefits, voting or getting good jobs!
Recently the Rand Corp did a study concluding that every 100 inmates getting their GED or high school diploma while incarcerated saves the state as much as $1 million every 3 years. $1 million for just $140,000! If treating and educating those we are incarcerating would save that much tax payer money, why aren't we doing this?
Do we really want to live in a country where justice is a commodity on sale to the highest bidder, where the poor, uneducated, mentally ill, and addicted are sentenced to a life in prison because prisons have become a big business? Surely we can do better than that!
Joyce Shutt is pastor emeritus of the Fairfield Mennonite Church and co-convenor of the Adams County Chapter of the Pennsylvania Prison Society which meets the 3rd Wed of the month, 8 am at Dunlap's restaurant, Gettysburg.