Monday, December 15, 2008

the burr under my saddle

For six years, from 1997 to 2003, I worked in research and planning on sentencing and corrections projects in state government - first in Idaho, then in Iowa and Minnesota. It was long enough to put a burr under my saddle when it comes to sentencing. Why does America incarcerate so many people compared to other developed countries, marking the lives of millions and causing corrections budgets to cut into educaton and other needs? More broadly, what are the proper goals of the criminal justice system and how well are we doing, as a society, in achieving them? The questions are both large and numerous, and the economic downturn can only make them even more vexacious than ever.

Maybe that's partly why I'm feeling the burr in my saddle again. But it also has something to do with trying to understand, in this Advent season of fading sun and rising hope, what light the Christian gospel can shed on these questions. In announcing his ministry in Luke 4, Jesus quoted a passage from Isaiah about setting the captives free. Why? Rene Girard, Gil Bailie, Howard Zehr and others have ventured provactive answers. More than two centuries after the "birth of the prison" famously descibed by Foucault, and nearly a decade after John J. Dilulio suggested that two million people incarcerated in America is enough, we're still stuck on that number. Is it time for a change?

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