Crime and Punishment

Editor’s Note/Bill Moyers

If you have been following any Washington news other than the debacle over health care and the intrigues surrounding The Russian Connection, you may have heard Attorney General Jeff Sessions talking tough about crime. Sessions is a “lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key” kind of guy in the mold of Richard Nixon, who as president decided that one way to deal with “the racial problem” was to throw as many black Americans as he could into jail on drug charges.

As Eric Tucker wrote earlier this year, the US prison population swelled as prosecutions increased and the convicted received longer sentences. And it ballooned even more when Congress abolished parole in the 1980s as Ronald Reagan escalated the “war on drugs.” More than half of federal prisoners are now behind bars for drug crimes, and if Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions have their way, there will be more. Didn’t Sessions say “good people don’t use marijuana?” What a rich target the “bad people who do” make for SWAT teams inspired by the reckless rhetoric of a Jeff Sessions.

According to The Brennan Center for Justice, drug cases accounted for 40 percent of the convictions Sessions won as US attorney for the Southern District of Alabama. That record helped get him elected to the very US Senate that had denied him a federal judgeship on grounds of his reported racist attitudes. As Tucker reminds, last year Sen. Sessions opposed bipartisan efforts at criminal justice reforms and said that eliminating mandatory minimum sentences weakens the ability of law enforcement to protect the public.

He and Trump were made for each other, and hardly had he been sworn in as attorney general than Sessions announced that he will reverse the Obama administration’s decision to curtail the use of private prisons, which will provide him more cells to lock up more prisoners — the United States is now the world’s largest jail — and to satisfy the prison industry’s thirst for greater profits squeezed from human woe.

Don’t despair yet. Fortunately, hard-liners like Trump and Sessions and the predatory industry salivating at the prospect of bigger bottom lines face what James Forman Jr. calls a movement “for a more merciful criminal justice system.” The Yale legal scholar writes in The New York Times that even growing numbers of Republicans acknowledge the moral and fiscal imperative of shrinking the prison state.” You’ll want to read why he thinks “Donald Trump’s presidency doesn’t spell the end of criminal justice reform. It may just be getting started.”

All this stirs the conscience of my old friend, Donald Shriver, president emeritus of Union Theological Seminary in New York City and a longtime champion of redemptive justice. Among his books: An Ethic for Enemies: Forgiveness in Politics; Honest Patriots: Loving a Country Enough to Remember Its Misdeeds (which won the 2009 Grawemeyer Prize in Religion); and my favorite, On Second Thoughts: Essays Out of My Life.

Don, now 89, is as passionate for social justice as ever. Here is his latest essay on “Crimes and Punishment.”

–Bill Moyers


Crimes and Punishments

By Donald W. Shriver

“It was indeed an ‘unusual’ judicial sentence of two white teenagers for racist graffiti sprayed on a historic black school in northern Virginia: ‘read from a list of 35 books, one a month for a year, and write a report on all twelve to be read by your parole officers.’” — New York Times, Feb. 9, 2017, p. A20

I thought: “At last, a punishment that really fits a crime!”

The only downside was that, when carried out, the books, in the minds of these two readers, were likely to be shadowed forever by associations with punishment. For me that would be tragic, given the fact that for millions of readers, myself included, this list of 35 books long ago helped alert us to the deep wrongs of racism in modern society: among them, Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, Night by Elie Wiesel and Black Boy by Richard Wright.

The remarkable feature of this judicial sentence was how it clashed conceptually with the customary default question that suffuses our judicial system as a whole: How long a prison sentence does the crime deserve? That question pe