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 penalty.
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 the community.
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 goals.
- Form a study group within the congregation to learn about the local jail and state prison system, its budget, recidivism rates, rehabilitation programs (inside and outside the facilities), and opportunities for volunteers.
- Network and collaborate with existing community outreach programs and advocacy groups for prisoners and their families.
- Establish Unitarian Universalist prison ministries and encourage volunteers from the congregation to go into prisons and get involved with and/or begin peer-counseling and mentoring programs.
- Address re-entry issues by engaging in supportive work with formerly incarcerated individuals to reduce recidivism and increase success in the probation and parole system .
- Reach out and support congregational members who are personally affected by the criminal justice system.
- Legislation that strengthens gun control, ends the so-called “War on Drugs,” disallows mandatory minimum sentencing, provides for fair, equitable, anti-racist sentencing , and abolishes the death penalty.
- Reforms of the judicial system to establish drug courts that prescribe treatment rather than imprisonment, provide affordable and competent counsel for all defendants, and empower citizen review boards.
- Effective alternatives to incarceration such as arbitration, restorative justice programs, community service, in-house arrest, and mental health and substance abuse treatment.
- Dismantling of the for-profit prison industry.
- A publicly funded and managed system of correctional facilities accredited by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care and by the American Correctional Association, ensuring that children and youth in custody are separated from adults in the penal system, providing appropriate facilities and services for prisoners with mental health and other health concerns, addressing the unique medical and psychological needs of female prisoners, stopping prisoner rape, and abolishing cruel detention and interrogation methods and the use of isolation for prolonged periods of time.
- Termination of the relocation of prisoners out-of-state or out-of-country.
- Support for families and family life by assigning prisoners to facilities near their homes, by providing facilities that are conducive to comfortable family visits, by maintaining parental rights as appropriate, and by allowing prison mothers to raise their infants.
- Universal access to rehabilitation, education, and job training programs and restorative and recovery programs for non-religious as well as for religious prisoners.
- A probation and parole system empowered and enabled to correct the excesses of past mandatory sentencing requirements, provide compassionate reprieves for the terminally ill and aged, support former prisoners as they reenter society, and allow for individual evaluation of technical parole violations.
- Elimination of post-prison restrictions on civil rights and civil liberties, including voting rights.
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.