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Finding a better way forward

Alexandra Stembaugh | Sunday, October 6, 2013

2,226,800. That is how many U.S. adults were sitting in federal and state prisons or jails as of 2011. Add those who are under any form of correctional supervision and that number jumps to 6,977,700v – more than the population of Indiana. This huge group of people is not often the topic of discussion because prisoners themselves are given no voice. Dramas and comedies like “Orange is the New Black” or “Lockup” feed our interest in the matter only because we are intrigued by a concept that seems so foreign to our lives. Prison is depicted as some sort of zoo that we can all be entertained by without having to deal with more difficult questions of justice.
I have been taking a Notre Dame course that challenges this perception and rethinks justice through direct interaction. Our class travels to a correctional facility each week to take classes with students who are inmates at the prison. We learn alongside each other as we explore difficult topics and share our own experiences. It is difficult to describe the enormous impact these classes have had on my own thinking. I leave with an entirely new perspective on our justice system and those being affected by it. The men in class aren’t violent or mean, but kind, funny and refreshing.
Many of the men – and nearly half of federal prisoners – are a product of mandatory minimum-sentencing laws. They are not the leaders of some large drug ring, but rather small-scale sellers or addicts. Many prisoners are locked up for years for a bad mistake they have no way to undo. A man found with just five grams of crack cocaine could have avoided the five-year mandatory sentence if he had only had 0.1 less of a gram when arrested.   
After these class sessions, it is difficult to say that everyone in prison should be in prison. Interacting with these individuals week after week puts a face on the concept of a prisoner. I hear the skills, dreams, hopes and fears of inmates, and the sad truth is this: There is no easy way forward for them. While work, education or substance abuse programs may be helpful for some, many are ineligible and the programs simply aren’t large enough.    
Imagine leaving prison at the end of a five-year sentence and trying to re-enter a society entirely transformed by technology. Imagine trying to re-enter a family that doesn’t remember what it’s like to have a father and imagine the difficulty of trying to find a job in a sluggish economy where every application will mark you as a felon. Prison teaches individuals a harsh lesson, but also incapacitates these people for the rest of their lives. Many non-violent criminals leave prison as even more of a risk to society because of the truly violent offenders they spend time with in prison, and because of the severed ties to family, work and community they face when trying to re-enter society.
The prison reform debate has been an ongoing one. Attorney General Eric Holder made news in August by stating that the Justice Department would spare minor drug dealers from mandatory minimum-sentencing laws and would even release elder, non-violent criminals early. This helps but does not provide a complete answer. Holder has recognized that prison is a system with diminishing returns. Holding people in jail for longer amounts of time or jailing more people for the same types of non-violent crime provides little benefit to the criminal or society as a whole.
Obviously, nearly all people in prison deserve to be there. They have broken the law and likely brought harm to someone in society. Prison is meant as a mechanism to keep society safe and to deter criminal activity. However, we must ask if these goals are currently being met within our system. Shouldn’t a workable system be punishing those who have done wrong without incapacitating them? Shouldn’t a system be allowing small-time, non-violent criminals to learn from their mistakes and allow a fresh start if there is a true desire to change? Shouldn’t a system be working to reduce the root causes of crime? The need for better-targeted policies is great, and the lives of people and communities are at stake in the process.

Alexandra Stembaugh is a junior studying Economics and English living in Welsh Family Hall. She can be reached at
[email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.