Three Strikes – A Disaster Waiting to Happen

JPD Seminar, Palmerston North, 8 May 2010 – Jim Consedine

It is hard to know where to start in trying to deal to the issues raised by ‘three strikes’, longer jail terms and harsher conditions of parole and confinement. I’ve been addressing these and other issues for 40 years since I first became involved in criminal justice issues. Twenty three years working as a prison chaplain helped clarify some things.

As chaplains we always sought to apply the teachings of Christ to the issues we were addressing. Christ in the Beatitudes (Lk 6) taught a deep way of social justice consisting of compassion, accountability, mercy, forgiveness and where possible, reconciliation. Applying these features has always been a major part of chaplaincy. We were bold enough to proclaim the Justice of God as best taught by the Church and as we understood it, however inadequately. It was often in marked contrast to popular culture and laws like ‘three strikes.’

In the 1980s and 1990s it led us to explore issues of restorative justice, victim-offender facilitation and promote habilitation centres. While some progress has been made, these innovative processes have never been properly resourced. They have faced enormous bureaucratic hurdles and huge odds against getting a fair hearing in the halls of power because of vested interests. But the seeds are sown and there have been some stunning results already.

On the flip side, at its very essence ‘three strikes’ kills hope and flows from a punitive philosophy, backed by corporate capitalism, which seeks to reduce everything to a moneymaking proposition. It runs totally contrary to the teachings of Christ which are always full of hope. ‘Three strikes’ is a simplistic response to complex and multi-layered issues.

Can I refer to three people the Catholic Worker in Christchurch is currently working with? One man, Peter, is ending a lengthy prison sentence and is due out soon. All his latest letters indicate that he is fearful of the future, of having to cope alone on the outside with all the prejudices that our culture carries for ex-prisoners. He has ‘gate fever’ in spades! I can see him back in jail after committing more crime within a short period of time. The time he has spent inside has virtually programmed him into returning. Prison has reduced him almost to an automaton. He is frightened of leaving the safety it offers. His marriage is over, his kids have gone.

A second is Georgie, the wife of Rangi, a long-term prisoner, mother of his five children. She struggles to make ends meet from week to week and her teenage children are a handful. Her 13 year old daughter was expelled from school just last week, an older daughter is suspended. They miss their father, miss being a family like ‘ordinary kids have.’ However, Rangi is no sooner released than he re-offends. Due to long years of incarceration and his addictions, he is relatively immature and happy in prison. It is his family who pay the real price for his offending.

A third is Matiu, another repeat offender, who recently returned to two years imprisonment having failed to cope with life outside prison. He wrote saying he apologized for letting us down, but he was ‘comfortable’ about returning to prison, which normally he hates.

Peter, Matiu and Rangi have become institutionalised by their years of incarceration. Their families have received lengthy sentences as well. A prison sentence often leads to the breakup of marriages, a spiral into further poverty, huge insecurity and fear for families. It was also a sentence to odium and critical judgment by the communities in which they live.

Is ‘three strikes’ an answer? California tried it first. There it has been a disaster, socially and financially. The Californian prison system has exploded out now to include triple bunking, longer sentences and several thousand – out of a total 167,000 inmates – doing life terms through a ‘triple strike’. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger wisely has done a back flip as he saw his State nearly go bankrupt. He acknowledges the arrant stupidity and injustice of ‘three strikes’ policy, not to mention the waste of much of the 8 billion dollars spent each year on prisons. Now, much more of the State budget is spent on rehabilitation, drug and alcohol programmes, restorative justice programmes, education, work programmes, early release options and earlier paroles.

After 40 years of ministry in the criminal justice field, four major insights stand out for me.

  1. The demand for harsher penalties is insatiable. It can never be met. The reason is that the urge to punish forms part of the unredeemed ‘shadow’ or dark side of human nature. Enough is never enough. A ‘shadow’ side is something we all have in varying degrees, as do all social groupings. We all have a light or grace filled side as well. Our significant life choice partly involves a journey towards the light of love and true justice, or a choice for serial vengeance which can never be satisfied.
  2. What is often ignored in penal policy debate is the role that social background and class play in the formation of each individual in society. For example, if you are raised in poverty (and thousands are in this country), the odds are stacked against you benefitting from the common wealth available simply because of your background. You see this truth reflected most clearly in the health and education arenas. That is partly why the prisons are so full of economically poor, sick, addicted and under educated people. Decile one schools do not normally produce scholarship candidates whereas decile ten schools in more affluent areas do! It is that simple. Class and background are highly significant factors in accessing resources. We cut out a lot of people at birth.
  3. Prison does not prepare released prisoners to live on the ‘outside’. Long term imprisonment brutalizes their spirit and almost guarantees they can’t. Yet this is what ‘three strikes’ represents – longer sentences with little chance of ever again making a positive life outside the walls.
  4. I have come to see that ideology, or one’s political philosophy of life, is what drives most analysis of law and order issues. Not faith, not vision, not seeking the common good, not even seeking true justice. Just simply following ideology. This applies equally to people who claim a religious belief and those who don’t.

It is clear to me too that in these past few decades there has been a marked swing to the Right ideologically in this country and worldwide as international corporate capitalism has taken control of our financial resources. Through ownership of the mass media and television, corporate capitalism has colonized our thinking, hence the shift. It has also taken control of much of our social infrastructure bringing with it accompanying values of individualism, status and competition, promoting money and profit as the god.

This is reflected in the current debates about private prisons and longer sentences, both of which feed the prison system and are very good news for corporate capitalism. The in depth visionary Casey and Roper reports into the role of prisons of the 1980s have been sidelined. Issues of social inequality, poverty and racism among others are sidelined as irrelevant in the quest to expand the prison system so some can make money from misery, while others can give vent to their controlling ideology.

Conclusion

There is just huge research around now to show that by fairly facing up to the causes of criminal offending, crime will be reduced and our communities will become safer. Drug and alcohol addictions, male violence, sexual aberration, and addiction to motor vehicles are just five obvious causes of crime. History shows that if you raise the standard of living and provide employment, crime rates fall. It can be that simple.

Facing these facts head-on, coupled with a realistic attack on social conditions which spawn much criminal offending – unemployment, social deprivation, bad housing and high rents, lack of primary healthcare, educational opportunities and good parental skills – are tough but mature ways of addressing crime before it happens.

Tackling these causes requires mature political leadership. It is often hard to find. Such leadership is the very opposite of that provided by the simplistic ‘three strikes’ promoters.

Jim Consedine was a Christchurch prison chaplain for 23 years and the founding national co-ordinator of the Restorative Justice Network.

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