Before the beginning of every year, organizational presidents, vice presidents, and board members sit around the table trying to develop a winning strategy for the coming year. It is the same in the world of advocacy. We review the past season's accomplishments and the items that we could not check off our list. We look at the current political climate, the agendas of other organizations, we toss around the general feelings of the public, count the opposition, and start a new plan.
The story is always the same, the debate is always the same, and it is always based around the current political climate. We feed off of each others' catch phrases, we hire experts to help us frame our message appropriately so that we reach a wider audience, and we try to ascertain who our allies are. These are all good strategies if we are trying to work within the constraints of the political process.
As the course is set for the coming year, there are statistics to consider. These are not figures reported in the countless documents that are generated concerning the size of our problem. The consideration should be the individuals who become the statistics in these reports. As we develop strategies and confer with each other concerning the politically correct message that will cause change, our prison population ages. As we agonize over words, pictures, and messages, 14-year-old kids are being sent to adult prisons. As we divide the lists of politicians into "friend or foe" people are abused, mistreated, abandoned, and condemned to a life in prison.
If we are to have any impact I believe we need a new language and a new level of awareness. This is not about the political process, government agencies or any of the old rhetoric we have become so accustomed to using. This is about people, reality, honesty, and justice. We need to be prepared to speak truth and accept truth.
In October of this past year, a 14-year-old boy in Colorado was arrested and charged with killing his parents. In Colorado the District Attorney has the sole authority and right to decide whether or not this young man should be charged as an adult. He was. Then the court was left with the problem of where this kid would be housed. The arguments were heated and loud as the judge tried to decide whether or not to send this young man to county jail where he would be held in solitary confinement during the course of his proceedings and trial. We are a country that declares you are innocent until proven guilty yet we are willing to subject a possibly innocent person to cruel and unusual punishment. Even if this child is guilty of the crimes he is charged with, did it ever occur to anyone that he was in need of serious help? Fourteen-year-old kids do not kill out of malice; only adults with an agenda do that.
Because we, as advocates, have been met with hostility and vehement opposition from victims advocacy organizations and district attorneys, we have softened our stance, our language, and learned to re-present the truth in a more palatable manner. It has not worked.
We need to start by stating the facts. Our current criminal justice practices have not worked in preventing crime. They have only increased crime. We have 7.3 million people under the authority of prison systems in the United States. A system full of, and fraught with, criminals and instances of continuing criminal acts. These acts are acts of violence between inmates, abuse inside of facilities, drug use and corruption inside of facilities as well as the crime against the human spirit which causes a breakdown of social skills. If you take the current rates of crime, add our current prison population, and then add the population of people who will carry the label of criminal for the rest of their lives, we are creating a large population of criminals through our laws and practices. Instead of allowing individuals to serve penance for their wrongs, helping them to find healing for themselves and those they have wronged and restoring our communities from destruction into prosperity, we are choosing to live in brokenness… forever.
In order to see change come, we must become bold in our statements. We must confront our authorities with the truth of the consequences of the laws in place. If we believe that we are innocent until proven guilty and that is the law of the land, then we need to hold our authorities accountable to those laws. If we believe that these are broken children who are in need of intervention and that we are judged by the treatment of our children then we must hold our lawmakers accountable for their protection. We can no longer afford to be cautious and calculating and we must be prepared for opposition. The cost is too great: destruction of our nation; poverty and brokenness; human life.
Instead of "tough on crime" or "soft on crime" rhetoric we need to confront our policymakers with the human cost of incarceration practices to the citizens of this country. Instead of juvenile justice reform policies we need to speak of child protection policies, rehabilitation policies, and the future of our nation. Instead of emphasizing crime rate statistics we need to emphasize criminal reform statistics. We need new language, new benchmarks, and new strength. When confronted with victims advocacy organizations, we need to be prepared to speak of the pain and loss that our current policies create and to remind them that healing is for everyone, as much for the criminal as for the victim.
I challenge all of us to look again at the challenges we face as advocates and see those challenges from a new perspective. Look at them with fresh eyes and maybe this year we will leave a legacy behind instead of a wish list for next year.