Editor’s Note: Van Jones is the host of the “The Van Jones Show” and a CNN political commentator. He is the CEO of REFORM Alliance, an organization aiming to reduce the number of people serving unjust parole and probation sentences, and the co-founder of #cut50, a bipartisan criminal justice initiative of the Dream Corps. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
California’s San Quentin is one of the oldest prisons in the country. Located on a parcel of land jutting out into the San Francisco Bay, the mammoth 167-year-old facility has a lonely and intimidating look from the outside – and on the inside, it’s just as forlorn.
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None of this should be surprising; that’s how our criminal justice system has designed these facilities. American prisons are built on the idea of retributive justice, where the primary goal is to punish and seek vengeance. It’s a model that aims to incapacitate people who commit crimes and create powerful, painful incentives for them to act right in the future. The bottom line: You harm someone, and we harm you. You hurt others, and you will hurt.
This approach makes some intuitive sense. The problem is that adding harm to harm inevitably produces more harm. Too often, people come out of prison bitter – not better. While they’re locked away, their children suffer and may be led astray. And rather than derailing the cycle of violence and trauma, our system’s retributive approach may often support and even accelerate that destructive cycle: According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 68% of state prisoners are arrested again within three years.
This system also isn’t good for victims of crime. Retribution intentionally damages the offender, but it can also accidentally leave victims with new injuries by neglecting their needs and silencing their voices. In the present system, victims and their loved ones are barely involved in the process of meting out justice. As soon as the crime is committed, a huge professional apparatus kicks in, and a massive, inhuman bureaucracy takes over. The police, lawyers, investigators, jurors and judges all start doing whatever they think is right. Neither the crime victims nor their family members get to ask their own questions, determine the punishment or seek an apology. During a trial, practically everyone talks except the people actually impacted.
After a trial, those convicted of a crime are sometimes legally forbidden to contact the people they hurt, even to offer an apology. The system attempts to shield survivors from unwanted contact with the wrongdoer, but that also robs victims of the opportunity to ask the questions that haunt them: “Why?” “What were you thinking?” “What were my son’s last words?”
As a result, the amount of communication between the two parties is practically nonexistent – except for an impact statement from the victims, delivered right before the guilty party is sentenced.
We know that this system isn’t working. To help cure what ails our justice system, reform advocates say, we need to think differently. We need to think about restoration.
Restorative justice shifts our understanding of crime and punishment and asks us to use a completely different logic. The goal is not to create more damage, but to create more healing – often through a dialogue between a crime survivor and the person who hurt them. The goal is not to add more pain, but to ameliorate as much pain as possible. At the end of the day, the goal is for all parties – and the community itself – to be restored to whatever degree of wellness and wholeness is possible. It seeks accountability from the trespasser, but ultimately healing for everyone involved.
That’s why in these conversations between those who harmed and those who were harmed, there usually isn’t a big audience or large army of professionals – just a facilitator and some support people, maybe five people total. The process involves tremendous emotional and logistical preparation, including trading questions in advance.
These exchanges come out of older, wiser traditions that recognize the many dimensions of harm, and that many threads of connection are severed when someone commits a crime. In these traditions, villagers would sit in circles, discuss the issue and find a just way forward – to restore the dignity and sense of belonging for both the victim and the perpetrator.
We are rediscovering that spiritual wisdom today, and it is changing lives. I recently visited San Quentin for an episode of “The Redemption Project” to meet a young man named Chris Smith. When Chris was 16, after a rough upbringing that led him into gang life, he says he followed orders to shoot at a car parked outside a high school. He did not realize that one of his former classmates – LoEshé Lacy – who was only 16 herself was in the car. LoEshé was killed and he had to face the consequences.
Chris was convicted of murder and eventually found himself in San Quentin. The first few years were rough. But then he found a series of programs in prison that introduced him to restorative justice – and for Chris, it changed everything.
Through restorative justice, he began a process of rehabilitation and self-reflection that led to a remarkable dialogue with Donald Lacy, LoEshé Lacy’s father. And Donald finally got more insight into what led Chris into gang culture and to the terrible decisions that took his daughter’s life. I was lucky enough to witness the encounter – and to film it for CNN viewers – as a part of “The Redemption Project.”
The really good news is that something new is brewing, not just in San Quentin, but across the criminal justice system. In fact, it has even reached Washington. With massive bipartisan majorities, both houses of Congress last year passed The First Step Act, the most significant piece of criminal justice reform legislation in decades.
The First Step Act began with a recognition that prisons can’t just be places of punishment. They must also create opportunities for rehabilitation and transformation. The law expands programming throughout the federal prison system and adds incentives that encourage men and women to pursue classes that will help them successfully return to their families and communities. It also scaled back some of the harshest criminal penalties like mandatory life sentences for third-strike drug offenses and retroactively applies other reforms to give thousands of people an opportunity to petition a judge for their freedom. It also added important protections for incarcerated women, banned solitary confinement for juveniles, and much more.
But we will still need second, third, and fourth steps – fully implementing the act quickly and effectively, rolling back other lengthy prison sentences (and continuing to do so retroactively to bring home as many people as we safely can), investing in alternatives to incarceration, scaling back systems of mass supervision like probation and parole, reducing barriers for people with criminal records, and so much more.
The First Step Act at least opens the door to begin that wholesale rethinking of our criminal justice system. No longer are retribution and incapacitation the sole aims of our public safety policies. Now, rehabilitation officially matters, too. And for some, nothing is more powerfully rehabilitative than sitting face-to-face with people you have harmed, in an effort to heal.