Skip to content

Reimagining A Just Society

I was a public policy major in college back in the 1990’s and had the great fortune of having Oblates of St. Francis De Sales as teachers in many classes including political philosophy and policy analyses.  My favorite Oblate instructor was Bernie Donahue, who taught geopolitics, political thought and policy analyses.  One of the many things I can still hear Bernie saying was, Aristotle claimed that “he who lives apart from society, is either a beast or a God.”  Fast forward a few years from college graduation when I unexpectedly found myself working in the PA state prison system.  I was as green as could be, never having taken a criminal justice class, knowing just about nothing about prisons, jails, offenders or anything related to these. One of the things I remember the most about my first two years working for then Commissioner Marty Horn, was that every meeting and most conversations were about prison bed space and how the system was going to accommodate the explosion in the annual number of prison admissions. Every conceivable place in all prisons, including day rooms and gyms was being converted to bed space, new housing units were being opened with dizzying speed, well as fast as large bureaucracies can ever move, and community corrections beds were coming on-line just about every week.  I was trying to learn as much as I could from as many internal and external experts as would welcome my inquiries (thankfully there were many) and while I focused on keeping my nose to the grindstone, I recall the Aristotle quote running through my head and thinking “do we really have this many ‘beasts’ in society?”

Time marched on and I had opportunities to visit many prisons in PA and several other states, getting to know leadership and staff and understand some about the life of an inmate. And while I recognized that a subset of the prison population seemed to “deserve” imprisonment for punishment purposes, I wasn’t so sure about every offender deserving to be there.  Enter again a Bernie Donahue quote, “justice is giving to the other, what is owed to the other.”

We all know the statistics about the staggering number of Americans under justice supervision, the world-leading U.S. incarceration rate and the amount of taxpayer money spent on prisons.  We also know that policies enacted in the tough on crime period like mandatory minimums and drug laws have a disproportionate impact on poor people of color. Collectively, we are pushing on to eliminate these and other ill-advised policies and “right-size” prison populations.  This is good but it is not enough. There is now a nationally funded effort to Reimagine Prisons, which was launched in response to both the tragic violent events occurring in jails and prisons such as Rikers Island and the dearth of knowledge we have about prison and jail operations. No one who works or is incarcerated in jails in prisons should be hurt by the hands of another.  If we ever get back to historic incarceration rates in the U.S. (and even though we’re working on it, the current pace is not going to get us there any time soon), we are going to have populations including thousands of people with sex crime convictions, many people don’t want to think about.  And think about the “new” population and how best to confine and rehabilitate them we should. But even more important than Reimagining Prison is Reimagining Society or Community in a way that decreases probabilities that at risk populations encounter the justice system in the first place.

We need guaranteed Head Start programs, strong, well-resourced schools, an expansion of pro-social mentoring initiatives like Big Brothers/Big Sisters. We need to expand prevention programs for in-home violence and ensure that those who need mental health treatment services can readily access them.  No one should have to go to prison to get the treatment they need – this is a fundamental injustice to the individual, but it is also unjust for society as our failure to act means that we are ensuring there will be more victims of crime.

In my work with juvenile serving life without the possibility of parole (JLWOP), I found so many heartbreaking missed opportunities to intervene.  The one that sticks out the most is that the mother of a JLWOP, herself struggling with serious and untreated mental illness, walked to three different places in her community in one day trying to get help for her adolescent son who was using drugs, involved in a street gang and was generally out of control.  At each location, she was told they couldn’t help her, and she was sent elsewhere.  In working with county governments and researchers, we know that there are relatively few individuals, often found within an extended family, who commit a disproportionate amount of crime.  I think a comprehensive, multi-discipline, multi-system approach to the extended family unit might hold promise for addressing personal, family and community risk factors before individuals become entangled in the justice system.

  • Skills & Expertise

    • Expert Witness in prison adjustment, determining risk for reoffense and offender reentry.
    • Expert witness in Juvenile Lifer Without Possibility of Parole (JLWOP) resentencing.
    • Public Policy Analyses
    • Criminal Justice Research and Evaluation
    • Data Collection, Analyses and Presentation
    • Grant Writing and Management
    • Public Administration
    • Strategic Planning
    • Program Development and Monitoring
    • Public Speaking
    • Legislative Testimony
    • Leading Collaborative Teams
    • Training and Development
    • Budget Preparation