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Notes from the Roundtable: a summary of Criminal Justice issues

Clerk of the Criminal Justice Working Group, Tom Ewell prepared the following summary of current criminal work under consideration by FCWPP. This summary will continue to be amended as the work evolves, but it serves as a good quick reference on the scope of opportunities out there. We welcome comments, corrections, or suggestions. Thank you again for all your support. Tom writes: The following is my attempt to provide a brief overview commentary on what I believe are the primary criminal justice issues in Washington that we are addressing – or may attempt to address – through the auspices of FCWPP and the support of Friends and our allies. These reflections are offered to help us continue to discern how best we as Quakers can offer effective, faithful, hopeful support to prison and criminal justice reform to our state. They are my personal reflections and do not reflect a seasoned perspective from FCWPP. Restorative Justice (criminal justice applications and relevance in schools) Perhaps no other issue sparks Friends interest around criminal justice work more than our work in restorative justice (RJ), because RJ values reflect those of Friends. Last year we were the lead organization in promoting successful legislation that provides legal recognition of the use of RJ practices. Paul McCold and Beth Rodman are experts in the field. Many of us now have attended Paul and Beth’s workshops and trainings and there is widespread awareness and respect for the RJ model. The challenge is now to continue to support implementation of the legislation we helped pass and continue to support expansion of RJ applicability. In addition to supporting and using Paul and Beth’s expertise, this would include continuing to educate ourselves and to promote local advocacy. Paul suggests that we might also explore RJ practices in our local school systems as has been done in other states. This might lead to some enabling legislation. Suggested Action: Name and support an active working party within FCWPP that would focus on implementing and extending RJ practices through local advocacy and possible state legislation. Death Penalty There is strong, even passionate, universal opposition to the death penalty among Friends, and we clearly support its abolition. There is a strong coalition in WA that leads this campaign, with which we are in conversation as supporters in principle. One problem is that the current campaign, Safe and Just Alternatives, accepts Life Without Parole (LWOP) as the necessary political expedient to get the death penalty abolished. Friends are not easy with that alternative given our strong advocacy for parole and sentencing review practices, which apply in particular to those with LWOP sentences. Efforts are being made to find a way to say that LWOP will continue to be a viable alternative to the death penalty, but that some provisions need to be included that allow for sentence review and parole at some point in the LWOP sentence for those who for a number of reasons may be safely released – age, success at self-improvement, clean records, for example. The possibility and hope of release and redemption needs to be preserved. Sentence Review, encompassing second chance legislation (currently led by People for Parole – P4P), three strikes reform, and geriatric parole policy A consistent issue for those working in criminal justice work is how to deal with the tough on crime legislation of the 1970s that blithely accepted ever-increasing lengths of sentences. Often it has been politically much easier to advocate for more punishment than it is possible later to undo. The era of tough on crime now impacts the human and financial cost of this terrible legislative heritage. The high cost of imprisonment has finally, if somewhat reluctantly, highlighted the issue of whether we can afford our current prison system. Although fiscal issues may indeed be the primary instigator of much needed change, Friends are most interested in providing the humane and moral arguments against our harsh and unreasonable sentencing practices. We have strongly supported legislative efforts to weaken the three strikes legislation, for example. Currently we are monitoring and participating in efforts to reinstitute parole. Friends in California have initiated efforts to institute geriatric parole, and this might well be a viable initiative for us here. Suggested Action: FCWPP will give strong priority to efforts to address the sentencing practices that take such a human and financial toll on our state. We will work primarily in coalitions, but if there is an opportunity to offer initiatives such as geriatric parole, we can try to do so. Gun Violence Seattle has experienced a much-elevated frequency of homicides in recent months. South Seattle Friends have now passed a minute calling on Friends to address this situation, and they have asked FCWPP for support in their efforts. This is a new area of concern for FCWPP – but one on which FCWPP initiated a discussion at its Roundtable on Criminal Justice in June of 2012. Suggested action: South Seattle Friends will be asked to provide leadership in educating wider Friends regarding their concern and inviting other meetings to join in discerning the issue and subsequently to endorse their minute or write their own. FCWPP can offer support in this process, and when the issue becomes a legislative matter, FCWPP will provide legislative leadership on the issue.  One possible area of action would be supporting legislation to permit local governments to establish more stringent gun-control laws than those of the state. Drug Laws (marijuana legalization) The NPYM Minute in 2008 on the War on Drugs provides a base from which Friends can address the drug laws that have caused so much havoc in the system and to so many people, especially young, African-American males. Currently we are facing an initiative (I-502) in the fall of 2012 that will offer an alternative to the current marijuana laws, by legalizing the production, distribution, and sale of small amounts of marijuana to adults. Unfortunately there appears to be considerable tension between the sponsors of the initiative and some who fear that adoption of I-502 might jeopardize medical use of marijuana because of a provision in the initiative about driving while using marijuana. Suggested Action: Friends clearly see the drug laws as dysfunctional and their minute proposes that marijuana use in particular be primarily treated as a mental health issue rather than a legal one. Possible support for I-502 by FCWPP will depend on evaluation of the initiative. Voting Rights legislation FCWPP has been much involved in winning approval of the Voting Rights Registration Act of 2009 for ex-prisoners and the subsequent effort to get its provisions implemented on the ballot affidavit. In addition there are some among us who would like to support greater opportunities for felon suffrage while in prison, both as a way of providing a greater sense of citizenship for prisoners and for giving them an opportunity to participate in the democratic process. If prisoners were able to vote there would be greater attention given to prisons by politicians, the media and thus the public, and prisoners would be less invisible and powerless. Of particular interest is that one of the long-term prisoners in Monroe, who I believe identifies himself as a Quaker, is the leader in the prison in terms of prisoner voting rights. We will continue to support his efforts inside the prison. Suggested Action: FCWPP continues to monitor voting rights and is seeking legislation to clarify on voter registration forms that the voting rights of persons no longer under the authority of the Department of Corrections have been restored. At present the opportunity for possible serious reform of voting rights for current prisoners, however, would seem to be low. Citizen Oversight of Prisons In 2001-02 FCWPP strongly supported a national reform effort that would have established citizen involvement in prisons, including WA. The effort was stymied because of fear in the legislature of partisan/voter criticism. Subsequently there has apparently been no further effort to work on this approach. [This concept is especially of interest to me because I served in a similar capacity in Maine as a member of a Governor appointed Prison Visitor Board with very positive experiences in terms of being able to act as a liaison between prisoners, guards, and support and administrative staff.] Suggested Action: Nothing specific. Just a wish this could be taken seriously in WA. Racism per se in the criminal justice system Racism in this country is perhaps most apparent in the criminal justice system, the “new Jim Crow” as it has been called. Some Friends attempted to gather support a couple of years ago for an effort to provide universal suffrage for felons based on racial discrimination in the 1964 Voting Rights legislation. Although a case based on this idea met approval in a panel of the 9th Circuit Federal Appeals Court, it was not upheld by the full Appeals Court. Suggested Action: Friends need to stay vigilant for opportunities to address racism. Solitary confinement There is increasing evidence that solitary confinement can be included in the category of torture. There is a national effort to name it as such and provide controls over its use. No organized effort in WA as yet to address this issue here. Suggested action: Addressing solitary confinement provides an excellent opportunity for Friends to provide leadership on an emerging topic. Who might offer leadership for this effort? And finally, although not directly a legislative matter, FCWPP wants to recognize and include all Friends who are involved in prison workthrough AVP, NVC, prison visitation, prisoner correspondence, for example. If you or those you know are involved in this ministry, we especially welcome your input and engagement with FCWPP. Share your stories. Provide your first hand testimony to the issues we are trying to address legislatively.
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