Harmon Wray speaks in Portland on Reformative Justice
Radical Methodist Minister seeks to reform the US criminal justice system. " It's just as violent to lock someone in a cage as it is to hold a gun to someone's head and demand their money."
Friday night at the United Methodist Church in downtown Portland, a diverse group of citizens gathered to hear Harmon L. Wray speak about the restorative justice movement. Wray is a Methodist minister from Nashville, Tennessee who heads the the Restorative Justice Ministries of the United Methodist Church.
The restorative justice movement seeks to reform the US prison system by advocating a system of justice that emphasizes mediation, dialog, and accountability through restitution to the victim of the crime instead of ?restitution to the state.? The vision of restorative justice, Wray said, is ?healing for both the victim of the crime and the offender.?
To explain restorative justice, Wray first compared it to what it is not- the American criminal justice system. Our current system, he says is "based on the concept of retribution or revenge, [and] defines crime primarily as an offense against the laws of the state. The state in turn, assumes the power to pick out a likely offender and to process this person through an adversarial drama in which the major actors are lawyers. Through either a plea-bargaining process or a trial in open court, played according to rules established by the state and enforced by the judge, the opposing attorneys fight it out in a sort of war game. Eventually the accused is declared either guilty or not guilty. If the person is found to be, or pleads, guilty, a sentence is imposed, which may amount to a symbolic slap on the wrist, a highly punitive prison term, ritual killing by the state, or something in between.?
?The real victim of the crime,? he goes on to say , ?is treated as marginal, as is the community-except insofar as they can be manipulated into lobbying for vengeance-and the offender is treated as passive. The process is geared toward fixing blame, not solving problems. The relationship between the victim and the offender is ignored. Both repentance and forgiveness are discouraged. Accountability is defined strictly as the offender taking his/her punishment, which-to call it by its real name- is the intentional infliction of pain on a human being by other human beings.?
Our current justice system, Wray counters, encourages ?competitive and individualistic values, assumes a win-lose outcome, and ignores the social, economic, political, cultural, and moral context of the crime and the appropriate response to it.? This leads to a system where ?opportunities for abuse of discretion and for corruption, racism, sexism, and class discrimination-personal and institutional-abound.?
Pointing out the hypocracy of the ?eye for an eye? mentality of the tough on crime supporters, Wray cited these death statistics for the past year:
17,000 deaths from homicide
58,000 deaths from hazardous and toxic work conditions
65,000 deaths from air pollution
80,000 deaths from medical negligence
100,000 deaths from faulty prescriptions
400,000 deaths from tobacco
This is the difference between blue collar crime and white collar crime, Wray said, adding that ?people commit crimes with the tools they have access to.?
Despite the fact that many more deaths occur from corporate, medical or environmental crime, we don?t consider these deaths to be the result of crime. We don?t incarcerate C.E.O.s.
Wray also questioned the need for more prisons. As Bridget Scarabi, director of the Western Prison Project, said in the beginning of the evening, the U.S. has incarcerated 2,000,000 of its citizens. This gives us the dubious distinction of having largest prison population in the world. This has occurred during record low crime rates. Homicides have dropped 33% since 1990. So why are prisons popping up like Starbucks?
According to an article Wray wrote, the Prison Industrial Complex is demonstrating how ?corporate greed drives public policy.? He also says,
It stands to reason that if some people are making money on keeping other people locked up, then they will make more money if they can lock up more people, keep them locked up longer, and spend as little money as possible in personnel and program costs while they are locked up. The less they spend in such categories, the more likely the prisoners will be to return to lives of crime after they are released. ...This, of course, also means fewer tax dollars going to provide government services, treatment, and incentives to give low-income people a good chance for a decent and crime-free life.
Wray called for an immediate moratorium on prison construction and an end to the private prison-for-profit industry. He also advocated for an end to mandatory sentencing, juveniles being tried as adults and the abolition of laws that criminalize behavior such as drug use. ?If another person isn?t hurt,? he says, ?it?s not a crime... If a person is hurting themselves, they need treatment.? The death penalty and life without parole he declared anti-restorative. This is also true of hate crime legislation. Admitting he was stepping out on a limb, Wray likened hate crime legislation to the death penalty as a punishment that does not deter crime.
The restorative justice model Wray envisions would involve voluntary victim and offender mediation. With help of a trained mediator, justice is worked out between the victim and the offender. The victim has an opportunity to make themselves heard, and the offender has the opportunity to apologize and try to make it right. Both parties then sign a contract that the offender agrees to abide by, such as diversion, financial restitution, probation, or possibly even a prison sentence. Wray stressed that mediation works best when it doesn?t involve the courts, but the community. He cited statistics that court ordered mediation resulted in only a 20% restitution compliance, while mediation that circumvented the court system resulted in 90% compliance.
Domestic violence has not been taken on by restorative justice, Wray said, due to the inherent power imbalance between victim and violator. He noted that the Navaho have successfully used the restorative justice model in domestic violence cases in their tribal courts. The peace keepers are elders who seek to re-educate both parties in the Navaho spiritual traditions which are gender egalitarian based. ?How to make this work in our patriarchal, non-egalitarian, mainstream society,? Wray said, "I don?t know.?
There are 320 victim/offender mediation centers in the U.S. and 900 in Europe. Some are court based, some are secular non-profit and some are religious or ecumenical faith based. The restorative justice movement is made of many grass-root organizations. Two that are involved locally are the Western Prison Project and S.A.F.E.S. (Survivors Advocating For An Effective System).
The Western Prison Project works on reforming the criminal justice system in OR,WA,ID,MT,WY,UT and NV. One bill they are currently working on is House Bill 2095 A-Engrossed this would stop the Department of correction from shipping prisoners to out of state private prisons. The Western Prison Project can be reached at (503) 335-8449 or you can view their web site at www.westernprisonproject.org. Tapes of Harmon Wray presentation in Portland can be ordered at firstname.lastname@example.org.
S.A.F.E.S. is a victim rights group that advocates moving from a criminal justice system motivated by revenge and profit to one of prevention, rehabilitation, and restitution. S.A.F.E.S. can reached at (503) 274-2139 or email@example.com.
JoAnn Bowman , Multnomah city council candidate and long time advocate for prison reform, is currently working on an initiative to implement a police accountability act that would set up an independent review board for police misconduct.
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