This I Believe

Thom - Port Matilda, Pennsylvania
Entered on May 6, 2008
Age Group: 50 - 65
Themes: injustice



I believe in accountability and I believe in following rules. Rules are an important component of a civil society. I also believe in second chances.

As the executive director of CentrePeace, a non-profit organization advocating restorative justice practices, I see and care for men and women of all shapes, sizes and colors, who have but one regrettable similarity. They have all broken one of society’s rules…and now find themselves confined to a 6×8 foot prison cell, sometimes sharing that tiny space with another. That we as a civil society hold these individuals accountable for breaking the law is not at issue. We must all abide by the laws of the land, agree with them or not. How we as a society choose to hold these men and women accountable is the central issue.

Our present system focuses almost exclusively on the punishment of the perpetrator. Little thought is given to the victim or of the families of the victim or offender. We are simply bound and determined to punish, paying little, if any attention, to the broader consequences of our actions or inactions. And for far too many years, we have permitted a criminal justice system to exist that has slowly become completely broken and out of control. To that point, consider for a moment that there are presently 2.3 million men and women incarcerated in the United States; that’s 1 in every 100 people. And that number grows by the thousands each and every month.

I am not an attorney, simply a member of society who each week is surrounded by these hurting individuals as they try to reconcile in their own minds what has gotten them to this place and how life will be different, and it will certainly be different, when they are released. 650,000 men, women and children will be released from prison in the United States this year. Two out of three will re-offend within three years. Nothing will have changed but their age.

I wonder if their incarceration did anything for them, for their victims or for society, as a whole. Have they been rehabilitated and/or learned anything or have I simply paid, as a taxpayer, to house these individuals for a finite period until they are eventually released back into the very environment that most likely contributed to their offense in the first place.

I believe that we, as Americans, must do some collective soul searching when it comes to the development of constructive methods of holding individuals accountable for wrongdoing. Our present system of incarceration punishes not only the offender, but the victim, the victim’s family and society at large. As a taxpayer, I am helping to pay anywhere from $20,000 to $100,000 annually, depending upon who you ask, to house each and every person incarcerated in the United States. Halfway houses designed specifically for the rehabilitation of non-violent offenders would cost a fraction of that amount.

I believe that a better system of holding individuals accountable is possible, if only we would take the time to understand the differences between our present model of punitive justice and the healing properties of restorative justice. Yes, both systems hold individuals accountable yet only the principles of restorative justice consider a more holistic approach. It is, after all, in our best interest as family, friends and neighbors to support these individuals prior to and upon their release so that they may find the support and structure they so desperately need in their lives so not to re-offend.

I believe this nation is better than is reflected in our current criminal justice system. If only we will stop simply punishing and begin restoring.