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As Unitarian Universalists, we are committed to affirming the inherent
goodness and worth o f each of us. As Americans, we take pride in our
constitutional promise of liberty, equality, and justice for all, including
those who have violated the law. Yet the incarceration rate in the United States
is five- to tenfold that of other nations, even those without such a
constitutional promise. Our corrections system is increasingly rife with
inequitable sentencing, longer terms of d etention, racial and ethnic profiling,
and deplorable jail and prison conditions and treatment . The magnitude of
injustice and inequity in this system stands in stark contrast to the values
that our nation—and our faith—proclaim. We are compelled to witness this
dissonance between what America proclaims for criminal justice and what America
practices. We offer an alternative moral vision of a justice system that
operates in harmonious accord with our values as a community of faith. This
vision includes the presumption of innocence, fair judicial p roceedings, the
merciful restoration of those who have broken the law, the renunciation of
torture and other abusive practices, and a fundamental commitment to the dignity
and humane treatment of everyone in our society, including prisoners.
The Current Crisis
In 2004, the United States incarcerated 2.2 million people in its prisons and
jails. Among industrialized nations, the United States incarcerates the largest
percentage of its population . There are also stark disparities in the racial
composition of our nation's prisons, as African Americans account for fully half
of the prison population and comprise only thirteen percent of the total
population. Costs of imprisonment have increased due to state legislatures
criminalizing an increasing number of activities, mandatory incarceration, and
mandatory minimum sentencing. In response to these increased costs as well as
lobbying by industry groups, state legislatures have increasingly privatized
prisons, introducing profitability into the already conflicted structure of
prison funding. Post-9/11 public fears have intensified the perceived need for
retributive policies and have undermined those that are redemptive,
rehabilitative, and restorative. Elected leaders and their constituents commonly
conspire in this politics of fear.
Although Americans take great pride in the freedoms we espouse, the American
prison system violates basic human rights in many ways. The Universal
Declaration of Human Rights, which the United States endorsed in 1948, states in
Article 5, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or
degrading treatment or punishment.” American correctional practice often
subjects inmates to abusive treatment, such as torture and rape, and neglects
basic human needs such as health care and nutrition. Some suspects are detained
without charge, legal counsel, or access to family. While indigent defendants
have exactly the same rights to competent counsel as non-indigent defendants, in
many states indigent defendants are not provided equality of representation.
The American penchant for retribution squanders opportunities for redemption,
rehabilitation, and restoration of the individual offender. Failures in the
criminal justice system have created a disenfranchised, stigmatized class who
are predominantly from lower-income backgrounds, poorly educated, or from racial
and ethnic minorities. The punishment for crime is often simply separation from
society, and the sentence one serves is the punishment. In our penal
system, punishment often continues even after those convicted have completed
their sentence. They are often stripped of voting rights, denied social
services, and barred from many professions. If convicted of a drug crime, they
become ineligible for federal student loans to attend college. Our criminal
justice system makes it exceedingly difficult for anyone to reintegrate into
society . People returning to their communities find that they lack opportunity,
skills, and social services to fully function in society and hold down jobs,
maintain families, or participate in their communities . Therefore, an
unacceptable percentage of those released from our prisons and jails recidivate.
Not all prisoners who enter the system leave. One of the most shameful
aspects of our current criminal justice system is the death penalty. Many
countries have abandoned the practice of capital punishment. Studies fail to
demonstrate that the death penalty actually deters crime. While the United
States Supreme Court has ruled against the execution of juvenile offenders, the
death penalty is still legal in the United States. Experience shows that judges
and juries wrongly convict defendants. Given the number of death row inmates
released on account of innocence, it is highly likely that we have executed
innocent people and will do so again in the future unless we abolish the death
Toward a New Corrections Philosophy
The first two Principles of Unitarian Universalism address the inherent worth
and dignity of every person and justice, equity, and compassion in human
relations. Consistent with these fundamental principles, a new corrections
policy must place a primary emphasis on community alternatives.
Community alternatives should be developed in the context of redemptive,
rehabilitative, and restorative justice. Redemptive justice recognizes justice
as relational. Its purpose is to restore wholeness and rightness in the social
order and in the disposition of the offender, not to exact revenge.
Rehabilitative justice is a process of education, socialization, and empowerment
of the person to the status whereby she or he may be able to contribute
constructively and appreciably to society. Restorative justice is a process
whereby the offender can reconcile with the victim through appropriate
restitution, community service, and healing measures.
A greatly expanded emphasis on community alternatives will provide
substantial cost savings. These savings may and should be in community support
services such as literacy education, vocational training, drug addiction
treatment, viable employment, and affordable housing. The benefits of these
services are in the quality of life for the offending person, the victim, the
families of the offender and victim, and the increased safety and security of
Separation from society may well be a ppropriate punishment for many crimes,
but society's responsibility does not end there. A corrections system driven by
compassionate justice would prepare offenders for successful reentry into
society. An overwhelming majority of those who are incarcerated return to their
communities, yet only a small percentage receive meaningful rehabilitative
programming while in prison. In the reformed system, they will receive
substantial rehabilitative services, including mental health treatment,
educational programs, and vocational training during incarceration and
employment and transitional housing once released. Redemption, rehabilitation,
and restoration are not only humanely forgiving of those who have fallen off the
main societal track; they are more effective and less costly in addressing the
criminal justice needs of our whole society.
A Call to Unitarian Universalists
Appalled by the gross injustices in our current criminal justice system, we
the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association commit
ourselves to working in our communities to reform the criminal justice and
correctional sys tems and effect justice for both victims and violators. We act
in the spirit that we are indeed our sisters' and our brothers' keepers. Love is
our governing principle in all human relationships. Therefore, that we may speak
with one voice in unity, though not uniformity, we commit ourselves, our
congregations, and our Association to these congregational actions and advocacy
Through ongoing congregational education, advocacy, and action, we can make
good on our Unitarian Universalist heritage and our American promise to be both
compassionate and just to all in our society. Through our diligence and
perseverance in realizing this promise, we can live the core values of our
country and extend the values of our faith to the benefit of others.
For more information contact web @ uua.org.
This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations.
Please consider making a donation today.
Last updated on Wednesday, August 24, 2011.
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