Ideas for a better justice system

by Patty Templeton

If you think that America can do better with its justice and prison system, you’re gonna wanna check out the 2nd Annual Transformative Justice, Prison Abolition, and Anarchist Criminology Conference at Fort Lewis College. Even if you think America is doing just fine incarcerating folks and rehabilitating them, bring your opinions to FLC on Saturday, March 25 and 26 for two days of panels held in the Senate Chambers in the Student Union.

The conference is a production of Save the Kids. DGO discussed the conference with Assistant Professor of Sociology and Criminology Anthony Nocella and two of his students, Chris Mendoza, a sophomore studying philosophy, anthropology, psychology, and peace and conflict studies, and Mari Anderson, a psychology major minoring in criminology.

What is Save the Kids?

Chris Mendoza: It’s a national grassroots foundation that aims to put an end to the school-to-prison pipeline … [and] doing a lot of really cool stuff that works to end the incarceration of youth and recidivism rates.

What does that mean, “school-to-prison” pipeline?

Mari Anderson: It’s this understanding that, if you get kicked out of class and you keep getting kicked out of class, instead of meeting with school counselors, a child is meeting with a police officer – disruptive behavior being met with the criminal justice system and not counseling. A child gets introduced into the system and continues in the system because they’re in a school with police on campuses, a whole bunch of police, instead of having counselors who can connect with them and teach them things to grow from.

So many people think, “That doesn’t exist out here in Colorado.” It definitely does. It exists everywhere in this country.

So transformative justice looks at root causes and comprehensive outcomes of crime. Can you talk a little bit more about transformative justice?

Anthony Nocella: Transformative justice is an alternative to the punitive justice system. It is very similar to restorative justice. The difference is that it is arguing for identity politics; restorative justice focuses more on victim and offender. Transformative justice is peace circles, community circles, something like a mediation, and they throw out the whole binary of victim and offender.

What is restorative justice?

Nocella: Restorative justice is a mediation between the victim and the offender … The idea of transformative justice really is a system of looking at the larger complexities of all of society and asking all of society to change, where restorative justice doesn’t want to change all of society or the whole criminal justice system. They want to create an alternative to the criminal justice system.

The term “prison abolition” may sound all-encompassing and out-there to someone not familiar with it. What does it mean?

Anderson: Prison abolition is the understanding that it is not about reforming the system. It is reducing the amount or prisons and replacing them with more effective systems. It’s a racist institution that is perpetuating racism in communities every day. Four to 5 percent of incarcerated people have sociopath or psychopath titles. That’s a very small percentage of the population labeled as uncontrollably dangerous. Knowing that and realizing that if we would stop building so many prisons and start investing in education or mental health offices and hospitals, we could cater to what people actually need. Like the great Angela Davis said, “When you lock somebody up, you are not disappearing the community problems, you are disappearing the people.”

Prison abolition is knowing that the 13th amendment came right after slavery when the economy was under duress and workers were needed. Police officers were searching for people of color, primarily, because racism was still going on, so they were locking up people of color and found free, legal labor. That is still going on to this day. The 13th amendment says “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist.” How is that possible? Legalized slavery.

What is anarchist criminology?

Mendoza: To begin, we should start with anarchy. It pushes for no hierarchy and trying to dissolve hierarchy in society. People are dehumanized and put below each other and objectified and laborers are made into less valuable things than the things they are producing … The criminology part is studying laws and the sociological context for what makes an individual a criminal and how an individual is given that name – how deviants are socialized into that status. Furthermore, how the laws which are in play are what create criminals and not the criminals turning themselves into criminals.

Anderson: I think so many people think, “You’re an anarchist? What?” It can be really intimidating to people. I think people use the word anarchy in the same context as chaos, this idea of anarchy as people running around banging in windows. That’s not what anarchy is about … It is a power to the people movement that says, “I am going to get your attention.”

What are the panels you’re most excited to be involved in?

Anderson: One that I’m excited about is the prison letter writing panel. It’s about what we do as prison letter writers, what participants last year did, and why it is important to write prisoners.

Another panel is about having incarcerated parents and how that has affected you, your loved ones, your community, and neighborhood. So many people are like, “Oh that guy is selling drugs, lock him up,” but don’t think about the impact of the child growing up without a father or seeing your father go in and out of prison all the time and how that affects somebody. Or, about how the community is affected from all these missing people.

Mendoza: I’m excited for all for the transformative and restorative justice panels. I’ve spent a lot of time studying it and I’m really excited to hear other people’s take and experiences with transformative justice, to hear about growth and development systems over punitive punishment.

What would you say to someone who doesn’t think they have been touched by the prison system and so they don’t think they’ll attend the conference?

Anderson: You have, that would be the first thing I would say. I would say that because when you impact one person you are impacting all. That is an anarchist framework but Martin Luther King Jr. also said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

I always encourage people who are against this or think they are against this to just come out. You can walk away still feeling the same as when you came in, but at least you heard the other side. I think that is so much of what society is missing. We stay stuck in our bubbles … This is an opportunity to learn about an issue possibly beyond your norm. Everyone should try to understand societal issues that may not directly impact their person but impact society as a whole around them.

Nocella: We invite everybody – professors, students, police officers, lawyers, judges, prosecutors, members of the community, everyone. Hopefully they come. This is a way for people to learn together in a constructive way.

Anderson: More knowledge can’t harm you … The community gets to come together and have a discussion. People who are “anti this” or “for that” get to shed some light on each … Sitting in a group of people with differing opinions willing to talk and listen, that’s what’s so beautiful about human nature and that’s what the point of this conference is. I think it would be awesome to have people with opposing views ask questions to the panelists. I would respect that.

Nocella: It’s true democracy. People getting together to dialogue.

How do studying issues like this translate into real world action?

Mendoza: Right now, Mari and I and some other students have been rallying every Friday at the La Plata County Court House to pressure La Plata County into implementing more alternatives to the incarceration of youth, like mediation programs, after-school programs, and counselors over cops – to use alternatives which are growth- and developmentally-based over punishment-based. It’s been really cool. Our first week we had four to five people. The second week we had close to 10. Last Friday, we had maybe 15 to 20 people. It’s exciting to see that gain some momentum. Passionate, fired up people. It is beautiful to see so many people from the community be there to take part in that.

What time is that?

Nocella: We are probably going to continue doing it from 1-2 pm on Fridays. A lot of community members are involved in it … The majority of adults that have been incarcerated have a juvenile justice system background. So we know that juvenile detention centers and their punitive practices are not working. Places are starting to move to different justice practices. We want to be one of those counties.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Patty TempletonDGO Staff Writer

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