Reimagining Punishment: It’s Time to See Prisoners as People

Photo by Harriet Langston via CreativeCommons

By far, the U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, with a punitive system disproportionately impacting marginalized communities such as people of color, gender minorities, and people facing poverty. Prisons are overcrowded, often governed by gangs, intimidation, and prevailed by drug abuses, making it impossible for people to feel secure, restitute, and make economic progress after release. In addition, the rate of recidivism is not reduced but raised by the system. As a result, the physical and mental well-being of those incarcerated, their families, and their communities have not improved, but remain harmed by the criminal justice system that aims to protect them. In order to begin to address some of these issues, the UCLA School of Law held a panel titled “Reimagining punishment: Examining the Role of Jails and Prisons” on Feb. 22, as part of its Annual Symposium program — a day long event entitled “Reimagining the Criminal Justice System.”

The panelists included Thalia Gonzalez, a Senior Visiting Scholar Center from Georgetown University Law Center, and Associate Professor at Occidental College; Jay Jordan, the project director of #TimeDone/Second Chances with Californians for Safety & Justice; Taylor Lytle, the organizer for California Coalition for Women Prisoners, and the panel’s moderator Sharon Dolovich, a professor of Law & Faculty Director at the UCLA School of Law.

During the panel, speakers presented their unique views and experiences regarding the roles of jails and prisons. They jointly called for reform to incorporate moral values in the system to focus more on the prevention of crimes, and to provide healing for individuals, their families, and communities.

The first speaker, Thalia Gonzalez, pointed out that the most common way governments respond to crimes is by implementing more criminal laws, leading to higher incarceration rates, without providing practical means or resources for them or their communities to heal and flourish. Due to the lack of resources both in terms of accommodation and prison management, jail time often traumatizes people, especially juveniles. According to the experience shared by another panelist Taylor Lytle, this drastically hinders them from regaining their lives and human dignity. It is therefore crucial that we reimagine a punitive system that relies not merely on legal construction, but that also invests in community agency to approach and address harms so that individuals are nurtured instead of further undermined, and their communities can find support in healing and restoring safety.

To approach crimes in more moral and constructive ways, Gonzalez further introduced restorative justice as a method we can apply to improve offender restitution and community recovery. Restorative justice practices allow offenders to understand the consequences of their actions and provide restitution under safe and monitored conditions in a school and community-based manner. This both resolves feelings of the victims who believe their voices and sentiments don’t matter and who are often neglected in the traditional process and lowers the rate of recidivism, according to Gonzalez.

Restorative justice can be implemented into each stage of the criminal justice system. Prior to arrest, police can ask if the offender wants to participate in restorative programs. Post-arrest and pre-charge, the state can determine which case deserves prosecutorial discretion that puts the offender through restorative programs. For cases that have not been charged, community justice centers can give a referral for certain offenders to participate in the restorative process. Even post-sentencing, or half-way through sentencing, Gonzalez believe it is more important that we ponder how to take advantage of the set of decisions to make the restitution process deeply community centered, and that we learn from other countries such as New Zealand, where the juvenile punitive system is abolished.

The second panelist, Jay Jordan, called on the audience to reflect on the juvenile punitive system by asking themselves if they would like to have their own children go through the system after they make mistakes. The answer was clear: a more humane and effective system would focus on helping and educating juveniles. Jordan went on to challenge people on their definition of a victim by recalling one time he asked an audience if anyone self-identified as a victim — the room remained silent. However, when he asked again if anyone had been harmed by another person in a way that could send the perpetrator to jail, almost everyone in the room raised their hands.

According to Jordan, many law-breakers were once victims who never went to court because they weren’t able to or didn’t wish to convict their offenders, who they might depend on for living.

The third panelist, Taylor Lytle, shared his own experience as a former youth foster and the horrors the dependency and the delinquency system has left him with. For him and for many others that have experienced the incarceration system, this experience is so traumatizing that no one else should go through it again. After Mr. Lytle returned home, he dedicated himself and his efforts to abolish the prison system. Juvenile delinquency stems from a lack of resources in marginalized communities that leaves youth without access to education and healthy, safe environments. Therefore, Jay Jordan advocated that instead of pondering reinforcing punishments, the state should make efforts to invest in communities.

The panel ended with the panelists offering advice to law students on how they can make an impact in reforming the system. Gonzalez pointed out that what you can do depends on where you see yourself in the puzzle. If you consider yourself excellent in policy making, make sure to understand the current situation, but also imagine what the legal system could look like in five years, for every time one restorative law is implemented, another zero tolerance law will be nullified and the incarceration system is further destructed. If you are to represent clients: observe confidentiality rules, and also try to support community workers and advocates. She also suggested students consult empirical research and try to rely on real-life representations when making decisions instead of relying on abstract ideas.

To Gonzalez, it is crucial to consider justice in terms of access to health. As we try to reimagine a criminal justice system that treats people as human, we should consider what will make people in the system as well as the community healthy, flourishing, and not just surviving.

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