Sunday, July 26, 2009

Crime, Punishment and Race

What I Learned at AFSC, Part I

From 1984, or thereabouts, to the end of the decade, I worked for the estimable American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in Michigan. My associates there, Marc Mauer, Richard Cleaver and Penny Ryder, among others, were wonderful colleagues and good at their jobs. Fiercely committed to peace and justice, they brought passion and expertise to their program areas, in Richard's case, the Middle East and, later, gay liberation, in Marc's and Penny's, the criminal justice system.

Marc moved on shortly after I started working at AFSC. After a few years at The Sentencing Project, he became that group's executive director. Recently, his organization released a new study, No Exit: The Expanding Use of Life Sentences in America. The report confirms what previous Sentencing Project studies (and AFSC's work in Michigan and elsewhere) have always shown:

The American system of criminal justice relentlessly and overwhelmingly discriminates, victimizing people of color and the poor, and does so regardless of the severity of the crime and the frequency with which they commit crimes. "The dramatic growth in life sentences is not primarily a result of higher crime rates, but of policy changes that have imposed harsher punishments and restricted parole consideration," the report says.

The Sentencing Project has also extensively studied the way discriminatory sentencing in drug cases, harsh treatment of juveniles, and inadequate drug treatment, education and training programs in prisons have contributed to recidivism, to racial disparities in imprisonment and to the country's overall rate of imprisonment. These factors and others have made the US easily the world's leader in imprisoning its own people. The US rate is five times that of England and Wales, almost six times that of Canada and more than nine times that of Germany (see more imprisonment data at this site, maintained by King's College, London).

Though I continue to follow their work, I am not in regular contact with Marc or Penny, but what I first learned from them underlies the conclusions I've reached about the criminal justice system since:

Our criminal justice system clearly doesn't work. It doesn't makes us appreciably safer. It doesn't rehabilitate. It wrongfully investigates, detains, arrests, tries, convicts and punishes as a matter of routine. It destroys families and devastates communities. It is one of the principle ways in which our society restrains, disempowers and disposes of people and groups regarded as irrelevant to societal goals.

These outcomes can be statistically validated. They are predictable and we pay extraordinary amounts to obtain them (In The Perpetual Prisoner Machine, author Joel Dyer calculated the combined cost in 1999 of "law enforcement, corrections and courts at the federal, state and local level" would reach about half the total of the US military budget--and rise at a faster rate thereafter). Yet we continue to pay for them. They must therefore be the results we seek.

Philosopher Jeffrey Reiman has written quite extensively about concluding that the results we predictably get must be the results we want. Reiman is the author of The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, a book now in its 8th edition and one that I have bought repeatedly as new editions come out. In an introduction to the book that has survived through several editions, Reiman argues that the criminal justice

"system survives the way it does because it maintains a particular image of crime: the image that it is a threat from the poor. Of course, for this image to be believable there must be a reality to back it up. The system must actually fight crime--or at least some crime--but only enough to keep it from getting out of hand and to keep the struggle against crime vividly and dramatically in the public's view, never enough to substantially reduce or eliminate crime.

"I call this outrageous way of looking at criminal justice policy the Pyrrhic defeat theory."

(You can find out more about Reiman's ideas here.

Of course, the racism and discriminatory treatment that shape the growth and management of the criminal justice system don't originate with the system, though its operations and results reinforce racism. The operation of the CJ system simply reflects what we as a society believe and what we care about most. The racism that plagues criminal justice originates with us. So far, we have not shown a great deal of concern about the talent the system wastes, the lives it throws away. We don't even notice.

That, by the way, is what Henry Louis Gates was reacting to when he could not calm himself during a confrontation with police at his Cambridge home. Gates is a scholar and writer of considerable achievement. And an African American. What, he must have been asking himself, does a black man have to do to be treated with the respect he has earned? On the other hand, Sgt. Crowley of the Cambridge Police Department, the arresting officer in the incident, is reported to be an instructor about race issues for the department. Assuming that he has earned that responsibility and thought deeply himself about how a white officer should handle himself in such incidents, it seems likely that he still had difficulty managing his own feelings about a confrontation that went south.

There they are: Gates, aghast, subject to what may have been routine police procedure in a country in which "routine" frequently means danger to blacks. Crowley, astonished, accused of being a symbol and believing that his sympathetic understanding of the racial subtext ought to compel obedience. Is it any wonder that we desperately need the national conversation about race that President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have so recently and frequently called for?

But even at AFSC conversations about race were complicated and emotional. The bedrock Quaker belief that there is that of god in every human being had deep appeal to the non-Quaker and, sometimes, secular staff. AFSC had also made massive efforts to hire people of color into meaningful programmatic and leadership roles. But the organization and the liberal Quaker community whose beliefs guided the work were predominantly white. Efforts to adapt Affirmative Action principles in hiring and to program choices and strategy did not always blend easily with the founding goals of the organization (created to provide a way for nonviolent Quaker youth to perform alternative service during World War I) or with the concerns of its mostly Quaker contributors. Regardless, I never saw so many different people commit so much time to discussing the ways in which attitudes about race consciously and unconsciously affected organizational culture and resource management.

For much of the time I was at AFSC I was also a member of the Ann Arbor City Council. My concerns in both roles overlapped considerably. At one point, I was able to get the organization to fund summer staff to work with black youth on Ann Arbor's south side. The city itself picked up the funding in some form a year later, but neither AFSC or the city were willing to spend enough to establish a successful program.

For that I hold myself principally responsible. I was unable, as a council member, to persuade my council colleagues and, as the director of AFSC's Michigan office, to persuade regional officials, that organizing and direct service work with minority youth ought to be a higher priority. We all knew getting good work done with black kids in poor neighborhoods would take more money and more commitment than we had managed to that point, but we were also unwilling, as a group, to believe that if we didn't act, or if we focused our energy and resources elsewhere, we would be ignoring the literal waste of individual lives. Race and our underlying attitudes about race (i.e., racism), had a role in that. I couldn't persuade others to do more because, at least in part, I couldn't see what was at stake.

Of course, the purpose, conduct, effectiveness and implications of the work were a matter of dispute at the time. And, because these conversations are so difficult, they remain contested. In fact, an earlier post of mine, memorializing Stella Taylor, an African American woman I knew at the time, provoked a heated response from a person who saw the work from a different perspective (you can see the post and comment here). It seems to me that a conversation about race that doesn't bring us to the conclusion that it is getting the little things right--like supporting daycare and pre-K everywhere, fixing every public school, funding summer employment programs in even the smallest towns--is a conversation that hasn't gone far enough.

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