The story I tell in Change of Heart goes to the heart of a critical conversation taking place in the United States, and around the world. What do we do with people who have committed serious crimes?
Do we kill them, in state-sanctioned executions? Do we lock them away forever, with no hope of release? Do we warehouse them in prisons with no programs—educational, vocational, spiritual—which allow prisoners to demonstrate their rehabilitation? Do we keep them far away from the victims of their crimes, forestalling any healing which might result from victim-offender dialogue? And how do we make sure that the right people are given each type of sentence?
Those questions have enormous significance in our debate about capital punishment, juvenile life without parole sentences, prison conditions, and restorative justice.
The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world; we represent about 5 percent of the world’s population, but about 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. The death penalty in the U.S. puts us in the company of nations like Iran and North Korea, which have a death penalty, rather than all of Europe and the entire developed world, which do not. Though there is some debate about this, the U.S. appears to be the only country in the world currently sentencing juvenile offenders to life without the possibility of parole. Criminal sentences for non-violent drug offenses can include one of the harshest available: life in prison. Meanwhile, restorative justice opportunities are meager at best, at every stage of a criminal case.
The cost to us is high. The benefit, too often, is simply a satisfied sense of retribution.
Executing a prisoner is vastly more expensive than housing him or her in prison for life. The toll the death penalty takes on those charged with carrying it out is heavy.
Life without parole sentences may protect us from people who continue to represent a danger to society, but the sentences also imprison people who are remorseful and rehabilitated and who no longer pose a threat.
Too-long drug sentences have incarcerated such a huge swath of our population for such long periods of time that even the U.S. Department of Justice has recognized that many of those sentences should be commuted.
Meanwhile, people are starting to notice the role that restorative justice can play: instead of fear and separation between victims and offenders, engagement and healing. Such efforts may or may not lead to people being released from prison (some people do need to be there in the interest of public safety), but they do allow us to apportion our resources towards the goal of solving real problems and maintaining a consistent ethic of human dignity.
My book, Change of Heart, describes a small bit of this complex endeavor which brought me despair, hope, joy, and wholeness. In the end, I found this: While prison is sometimes the right answer, a denial of another’s humanity never can be.