Prisons, Prisoners and Governments

The new sentencing-reform bills now moving through the Senate and House would help reduce some of the longest mandatory-minimum sentences, including ending the use of life without parole for drug crimes, and would give judges more power to impose a shorter sentence when the facts of a case warrant it.

Source: “Cut Sentences for Low-Level Drug Crimes” editorial, New York Times

Last week I finished reading Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson.

Stevenson is a lawyer, living in Alabama and dedicating his working life to helping the innocent and unfairly punished be spared a death in prison. He started with capital punishment cases and broadened his slate to include, among others, juveniles sentenced as adults to die in prison. Often this was under mandatory sentencing laws.

It’s easy for us to read the stories in Stevenson’s book and think about how horrible the USA often is for the underprivileged.

It’s easy because it distracts us from what happens at home.

I first became interested in the concept of incarceration and the fairness of prison sentences a number of years ago. More recently, though, after reading David Eagleman’s Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, I started to question the validity of incarceration as a means of justice.

Then, as a result of social connections, I was tangentially involved in the campaign to spare the lives of Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan. Later I became a supporter of the Human Rights Law Centre because of the excellent work they continue to do for the rights of Australians and the people Australian governments affect through policy and action.

What I’ve learnt through this time is that we choose to abstract people from the equation. We talk about politicians and police and drunks and drug smugglers as if they are defined by that one role and not every part of themselves.

Myuran Sukumaran was a drug smuggler. But he was also an artist, a son and a brother. When the Indonesian government executed him, he was also a repentant man who lived his life in the service of improving other people and, as a result, the society around his incarcerated life.

So many people in prison now are, arguably, not the people who committed the crime. They are victims of a sad coincidence: They share a body with an idiot who made a mistake.

And that’s one of the biggest problems with the way we seek justice. We send punishments into the future for damaging acts committed in the past – acts that cannot be undone. But we have the power to make the future better by helping those same damaging actors contribute to society rather than just continue to take from it.

From Australia, and while looking at my own governments, I applaud this move by the USA’s government to amend sentencing policy. Over time they have admitted errors made in the past and tried to improve the lives of their citizens.

Maybe, in time, that same opportunity to try to make up for a mistake will be given to people currently cut off from the society they so need to improve.