Is ‘Three Strikes’ Sinful?

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 53, Pentecost 2010

Jim Consedine

Pentecost is a season of hope and new beginnings. The ultimate proof of the resurrection of Jesus came not just from the eyewitness stories of the early disciples, but from the extraordinary change that occurred in them after Pentecost. From being scared and frightened men and women, they blossomed into courageous witnesses. Jesus, the Nazarene, whom they had seen dead on a cross and later in a tomb, was alive and walking among them.

With Pentecost came fresh hope. What a message in the dark world of Roman imperialism and occupation, of slavery and domination. What a transformation this bought about in the disciples. From Pentecost onwards, they walked tall in the marketplace and spoke boldly in the synagogues. They were beaten, marginalised and imprisoned. But they prevailed. Jesus had risen. From such unlikely beginnings, grew the early Church.

As we celebrate Pentecost 2010, many feel some of the mixed emotions of those early disciples. Major problems facing today’s Church in regard to sexual abuse and the abuse of power from some clergy have led to widespread anxiety and a weakening of faith for many. We face major hope-sapping crises in the wider world – climate change and ecological disaster, issues of poverty, racism and gender discrimination, of war and abortion, of the expanding arms race.

Another such issue is the increasing use of imprisonment as a tool against the poor. ‘Three strikes’ laws are the sharp end of this blunt instrument.

Church Teaching

In 1988, the New Zealand Bishops Conference published a statement which described imprisonment as ‘a poison in the bloodstream of our nation.’ It was an insightful comment. In 1999, the world Catholic prison chaplains’ conference meeting in Mexico, in line with the social teachings of John Paul II (On Social Concerns, 1987), named prisons ‘structures of sin’. Both statements called for a more constructive way of dealing with crime and its effects on victims and offenders. They challenged Christians to practise forgiveness and communities to provide healing mechanisms for individuals affected by criminal offending. They sought change in societies where poverty, inequality and injustice were seen as spawning grounds for crime.

These statements represent a vision of what an Easter people might hold in faith about their brothers and sisters affected by crime, both victims and offenders. We know the teachings of Christ call us to live in a way different from lives dominated by ‘the principalities and powers’ of this world. His teachings call us to a radical love of our neighbour in whom we find his Risen presence. The Easter post-resurrection stories teach that the Risen Christ lives ‘disguised’ in our neighbour. Further to that, Christ calls us to build ‘a new creation’ – to be different and do things differently, particularly in the field of relationships. It is challenging stuff for believers.

Regrettably, in the field of penal policy in New Zealand, we remain light years from such a vision. And the light seems to be getting darker. In the past 10 years, New Zealand has managed to double the numbers it sends to prison. And we have made their sentences much longer. The current muster is 8250, treble what it was 30 years ago.

Government Policy

With ACT wagging the government’s tail so vigorously, this darkness is obvious in the latest ‘three strikes’ crime legislation. If ever a law defies belief and makes no sense, this has to be it. Even the Ministry of Justice opposed it. It strikes right at the heart of the Easter message of hope. Just as every new prison built is a sin against hope, so enabling legislation is equally sinful.

With New Zealand already outstripping all its Western allies (with the exception of the US) in its high imprisonment rate, it defies belief that an intelligent leader like John Key can sit on his hands and allow our prison system to grow and continue to gobble up valuable resources which could be better used elsewhere. Prisons are one of the few growth industries we have.

Cutting back on healthcare, education and social services in order to expand the prison industry is simply wicked. That in effect is what is happening. Every week there is a fresh debate about government spending cuts. Great spin is placed on how these are presented to the electorate. For spin read ‘massaged truth’. Many have swallowed the spin and think the government has no option at a time of recession. That is certainly arguable.

However, what cannot be argued intelligently is that somehow putting more people into prisons is going to cut the crime rate. Paradoxical as it seems, all the evidence is that it expands the rate. The last ten years have seen prison numbers blow out massively since the Norm Withers petition pressured the Labour administration into increasing sentences and building more prisons. Recent statistics (April 2010) show crime rates, especially violent crime, have expanded too, up by several percent points and climbing. It seems that higher prison rates leads to higher crime rates! Can the government not smell failed policy even when it is rotting at their feet?

A Spiral of Violence

The demand for harsher penalties is insatiable. It can never be met. The reason is because the urge to punish forms part of the unredeemed ‘shadow’ or dark side of human nature. Enough is never enough. To paraphrase John O’Donohue, ‘the turbo motor within the shadow spirit ensures that.’ A dark side is something we all share in varying degrees. As indeed is our grace-filled or ‘light’ side. ‘God is light’ says St John. Our life choice involves a journey towards the light of love and true justice, or a choice for serial vengeance which can never be satisfied.

One major issue we face is that there are huge vested interests intent on maintaining the status quo. These include the construction industry, prison officer unions, the majority of police, much of the judiciary, the corporate media, and many politicians. The latter know that people get frightened and there are votes in fear mongering.

Part of the problem also is that 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.

‘Three strikes’ is more than a strike against criminals and their families. It is a strike at the very foundation of a fair and just judicial system. To make more penalties mandatory and further remove discretion from sentencing judges who hear all the facts is to change the way we do criminal justice.

The cost of the new laws is mindboggling. It is scheduled to cost an additional $356 million over the next 50 years, in addition to the current prison budget. Imagine what could be done productively with that spending! Paradoxically it is presented as ‘a better deal for victims.’ What nonsense. It is vengeance, pure and simple. Innocent children of offenders, especially thousands of the most impressionable who are at primary and secondary school age, will suffer as much as anyone with a parent locked away for years. This is so unjust to the children affected.

Social Effects

The reasons for re-offending are clear enough. Prison undermines social and community relationships and the sense of belonging, so vital to healthy living. Most emerge with their confidence and social skills at rock bottom. Most prison inmates have addictions of one form or another, mainly alcohol related. Many are poly addicted. Only the lucky few get to do a proper addiction programme while inside prison. Most of their relationships, fragile as they may have been on the outside, are effectively destroyed during a lengthy term of imprisonment. Few survive with relationships intact. Ask Nelson Mandela.

Many lose contact with their children because of the vengeful social system we have built to punish their parents. A new generation of struggling one-parent families is constantly being developed. The social service cuts announced recently will guarantee these solo families will remain in poverty. The cycle of social deprivation is guaranteed to expand. What are the odds of these children ending up in prison themselves in a decade or two? All the evidence says many will. Our social systems have combined to make it so.

It needs to be said that a huge amount of effort goes on in the community to prevent much of this happening. There are some amazing programmes and efforts made to counter the poison that prison produces. Some of the effort is heroic. Sadly, such efforts are under resourced and the odds of success are not good.

Social Justice – Not Vengeance

Rosemary McLeod made an interesting point in a recent column. ‘If cruelty is what we deplore and punish, why do we speak in the language of cruelty ourselves when we discuss our worst criminals? If severe anti-social behaviour is what we despise, why do we limit our perception of that to violence alone? And if we are so scared about rising violent crime, why don’t we apply equal energy to dealing with its causes?’ (The Press, Christchurch, 28 January 2010)

A government with courage and vision could start to change all this. They could announce a moratorium on new prison construction. They could re-allocate a decent slice of the current $574 million budget from prisons towards community-based drug and alcohol rehabilitation programmes (80% of inmates have addictions) and widespread anti-violence programmes, develop parental training centres, subsidize job creation schemes, promote more personalized community policing, legislate more stringent controls on liquor outlets and advertising, create better mental health facilities and programmes (20% of inmates have mental health issues) and provide funding for more community-based restorative justice programmes. Prison musters would be reduced substantially and prisons could be maintained for only the worst offenders. This would bring us nearer to Scandinavian models.

Allowing governments to get away with developing legislation like ‘three strikes’ and expanding the prison system to house a new influx of prisoners is wicked. It wastes millions of dollars of precious resources and simply pampers to the private fear-mongering of ACT and the punitive tendencies of many other MPs.

For the sake of future generations, we must do better than this.

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

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