Life Without Parole: Shortsighted at Best
“Justice” comes in many forms. The philosophies of sanctioning run a mile wide and have a history too long for this space. The synopsis: before we can sanction, we have to know our intended purpose in sanctioning. Deter, retribute, rehabilitate, restore? And since it is impossible to remove our own bias from the decisions we make, sanctioning—and thereby “justice”—is sometimes located inside the murkiest swamps. That’s OK until it isn’t.
This month in Hamilton County, 25-year old Earl Jones was given a life sentence with no possibility of parole. In his wake are shattered family and friends of Kevin Neri, a young man who was cheated out of the rest of his life because Jones thought a gun and avengement were the right answers to a girl problem. The devastation those who love Kevin Neri feel must seems boundless; the massive and irreversible harm unmistakable by any measure.
I know neither of the young men involved in this case personally, nor their families. I may meet Mr. Jones inside one of the prisons we work and when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. Until then, we will pray for many things.
But as a citizen—both God-fearing and tax-paying—I’m perplexed (read: annoyed) at how we can assign to the category of “justice” a willingness to end a second life on behalf of a first life. Justice should have both a 10,000-ft. view and a front-row seat. “Life without parole” (LWOP) is a shortcut. Permanently remove a person’s freedom and the problem disappears forever.
Except it doesn’t. It simply shifts.
In both political and educational arenas I’ve had hundreds of discussions with prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys, corrections/police officers and wardens. I have great respect for the professionals in our system. However, after 15 years inside our grittiest hallways, I’ve concluded it’s simple to kick that justice can down the road and not account for the decisions that are made in the courtroom (or the small room where deals are made). To some, LWOP sounds like a way to fix a kid with a gun and wonky idea of love and honor. What it really does is provide a temporary smattering of emotional relief and create an additional set of victims.
I’ll save my dissenters the ink: Eye-for-an-eye. His victim doesn’t get a life, why should he? I honor those sentiments, but know this: it’s a lose-lose. If every one of us functioned from the John Rawls (Theory of Justice) Original Position and Veil of Ignorance that prevented us from knowing our own station in life, we’d be far less likely to treat other human lives as disposable. In spiritual circles we call that ‘There but for the grace of God go I.” By sentencing LWOP we imply that there is no possibility that someone can learn from his mistakes, fill the gaps in his thinking, make amends for his actions or be part of what is good in our free world. It simply isn’t true.
At the very least, LWOP is:
Fiscally unsound: We will spend more than $25,000 annually to house/feed/clothe Earl Jones. If he lives until he is 70, that’s $1,125.00 of taxpayer money inside incarceration’s swirling eddy.
Societally unsound: Incarceration begets incarceration. Fractured communities and families seethe instability. In the cycle, children grow up without parents and become parents who leave their families.
In our Diocesan prison work and through Damascus, our reentry staffing, we witness what happens when people come the football field lengths from who they were at their worst moment to who they can be at their best. The journey is arduous, with a hundred backslides. Our volunteers sit knee-to-knee with the least of these and our employment partners create solutions to restore people/families/communities, all while gaining great workers. [To learn more, visit www.catholiccincinnatiprisonmission.org and www.damascusstaffing.com.] The work on both sides is HARD, which is why the harvest is great and the laborers few.
I extend the same invitation I have for a decade to those who are in positions of power in the system: follow your decision to its end. Come into prison with us. Sit in our faith-based and reentry programs. Participate in Xavier’s Inside-Out Class. Witness people in their best moments rather than write them off at their worst. In short, from the sanctioning bucket, pick restoration.
By all means, remove Earl Jones from society right now. He has cashed in his chips to circulate among us freely and make decisions on his own. But now that he is in custody and there is a modicum of safety returned, let’s get to the bottom of things. If we want to move the needle on justice, prison should serve as a beginning, not an ending.
May the soul of Kevin Neri rest in eternal peace.