Temple Beth El
Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. p.141.
The “whites only” signs may be gone, but new signs have gone up—notices places on job applications, rental agreements, loan applications, forms for welfare benefits, school applications and petitions for licenses, informing the general public that “felons” are not wanted here. A criminal record today authorizes precisely the forms of discrimination we supposedly left behind—discrimination in employment, housing, education, public benefits, and jury service. Those labeled criminals can even be denied the right to vote.
Full disclosure requires that I begin by admitting that I was a lawyer for nearly 40 years. So what I do now is clearly atonement.
I want to start this morning by telling you a little bit about how I got to be where I am, because sometimes it is hard to understand the meaning of your own life. For me it was hard to understand where God wanted me to be.
I worked in the criminal justice system for more than thirty–five years. During those 35 years, I prosecuted and defended rapists, murders and shoplifters. I wrote legislation. For a while I was head of the state crime labs, and during that time we introduced forensic DNA in Wisconsin. I worked with Chief David Couper on the development of Community Oriented Policing. And we prosecuted Publishers Clearing House for defrauding the elderly.
It was a wonderful career, and I looked forward to going to work every day. But several years ago, I began to think that God might be calling me in a different direction. After four years and 100 trips to seminary in Chicago, reading a lot of very strange books and—at the age of fifty-three rediscovering the joys of student loans—I knew that God wanted me in prison. I needed to be in prison to find the justice that is missing in the legal system.
Over the years I have come to understand, to know, and to believe in the deepest reaches of my heart, that the American criminal justice system is long on process but short on justice. And that there was no way that I could get to justice as a lawyer.
I know the criminal justice system allows prisons to operate at 130% of capacity. But I know that is not God’s justice.
I know the criminal justice system allows prisoners to be double- or even triple-bunked, sharing a cell and an open toilet most of the day. But I know that is not God’s justice.
I know the criminal justice system has allowed the prison population to increase 300% in 20 years. But I know that is not God’s justice.
I know the criminal justice system has created a prison population with the majority of inmates who are people of color. But I know that is not God’s justice
I know that the policy known as “Truth in Sentencing” denies even the possibility of human transformation. But I know that is not God’s Justice.
I know that in Dane County a young black man is 100 times more likely to go to prison than a young white man. But I know that is not God’s justice.
So after more than four decades, that is what I know about the criminal justice system and why I feel that, no matter how hard I worked or no matter how hard all the other well-intentioned people—the police, the crime lab analysts, the lawyers, the judges, the probation and parole agents, the prison wardens—no matter how hard we all work, we will not get to justice. So how do we get to Justice?
The first thing we have to do to get to Justice is we must begin to care about the 21,000 people who are in prison in Wisconsin and the public policies that put them there.
That requires a radical change in perspective.
If we are honest, I think the real reason we don’t care or even think about people in prison is because we think that people in prison do not deserve our care and concern.
We think: People in prison did terrible things.
We think: They knew what they were doing.
We think: They got a fair trial.
We think: They got a just sentence.
We think: All our concern must be for their victims.
After all, in my tradition, in the great parable of the Good Samaritan all of the concern is focused on the crime victim, not the robbers who “stripped him, beat him and went away.”
But we think: By doing whatever they did to get themselves locked up, people in prison forfeited their right to our concern.
We think: By their own actions, they took themselves off our list.
Before we can get to justice this perspective has to change.
I think the ancient Hebrew fable in the Book of Ruth can help us do that.
The Book of Ruth is really a short story about the life of a devoted Hebrew mother, Naomi, and her family who are forced by famine to move from Bethlehem to Moab. (Without wanting to be sacrilegious, but to show the immense cultural difference, it would be as if a family of Packer fans with two sons named Aaron and Roger were forced to live in a tent in the middle of Soldier Field, and the boys married women from wealthy Chicago families.) But things do not go well for Naomi. By the end of the first five verses, her husband and sons are dead. Naomi and her two daughters-in-law must choose what to do next. Naomi decides to return to Bethlehem. One of the younger women, Orpah, decides to return to her family and presumably a life of security. Ruth, however, makes an astounding choice. She chooses to go with Naomi and face a very uncertain future in Israel. She makes an amazing statement of faith: “Where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”
We have a choice. Like Orpah, we can opt for the safety and security of our known life together and continue to ignore suffering and injustice. Or, like Ruth, we can choose to take the risk of engagement, knowing that those in prison are still our people and should not be forgotten.
Once we accept the risk of engagement, what can we do?
First we have to end mass incarceration. Read Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow. Alexander details the causes and costs of keeping more than 2 million of our brothers and sisters behind bars and 2 million children with fathers in prison. Alexander explains that mass incarceration results from two explicit public policies: the war on drugs and tough-on-crime laws, like truth in sentencing, that have led to more people being in prison for longer sentences with no chance for parole or time off for good behavior.
The system is also profoundly racist. Nowhere more than Wisconsin. Nowhere more than Dane county.
Let’s be clear, it is not because the cops, judges and prosecutors are racist. They are not. They are our friends and family. They are good, smart, well-meaning people. Racism is the result of the criminal justice system, a system that refuses to recognize the vast differences in the realities of life between black and white in Madison.The Race to Equity Report released last year by the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families found that Wisconsin leads the nation in racial disparity and in many ways, Dane County leads Wisconsin.
The Race to Equity report found that in Dane County:
75% of the county’s African-American children live in poverty, compared to 5% of white children.
Half of all black high school students don’t graduate on time, compared to 16% of white students.
African-American children are 15 times more likely than their white counterparts to land in foster care. And black juveniles are six times more likely to be arrested than white juveniles.
Wisconsin has the greatest disparity in the nation between the achievement of white kids and black kids. We are number 50. Go Badgers.
Our response to claims for justice is to invest a billion dollars every year in a criminal justice system that operates most efficiently when it sends young black men to prison.
It does not have to be this way. Minnesota, with the same population demographics, the same urban rural divisions, the same crime rate, has only a third as many people in prison because they invest much more in treatment than bricks, razor wire, and guards. Wisconsin could do the same. Our prisons look like they do because of choices we as a society have made. We can make better choices. We could cut Wisconsin’s prison population in half by offering more treatment on the front end, a chance for people to earn their way home while they are in prison, and more help after they are released.
These better choices will also make our communities safer. A new 444 page report from the National Academy of Science concluded that:
Given the minimal impact of long prison sentences on crime prevention and the negative social consequences and burdensome financial costs of U.S. incarceration rates…the nation should revise current criminal justice policies to significantly reduce imprisonment rates.
So I ask you to join me, other congregations around the state in speaking truth to power, giving voice to the voiceless and—most importantly—like Ruth, choosing the risks of engagement because the people in prison are still our people and will not be forgotten.