What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God? (Micah 6:8)
As the millennium changed, about eight million people were incarcerated worldwide, a quarter of them in the United States. The population of U.S. prisons and jails now exceeds two million individuals. Seven million people, that is, one in every 32 adults in the U.S., were on probation, in jail or prison, or on parole at year end 2001. The incarceration rate has more than tripled since 1980. The cost of this is staggering. Prison operations in the U.S. cost about $40 billion each year. In the last five years, more money has been spent by the states on prisons than on university construction.
This punitive attitude is particularly notable in Pennsylvania, where $1 billion a year is being spent by the Department of Corrections. The inmate population in this state now stands at more than 37,000 (up from 5,500 in 1969). The number of prisoners serving life sentences is more than 10 percent of that total. The original home of Quakers in the U.S. has a sorry record for mercy and justice. Since January 1995, when former Governor Tom Ridge took office, Pennsylvania has not commuted the sentence of a single prisoner serving a minimum, maximum, or life sentence, not even the terminally ill. In contrast, the sentences of over 270 lifers were commuted for return to society during the administrations of the three previous governors, between 1971 and 1994. The tenuous light of hope for those serving life in prison has summarily been extinguished. In Pennsylvania, as in South Dakota and Louisiana, a life sentence literally means spending the rest of one’s life in prison. "In the absence of clemency," states Dr. Daniel Menitti, a psychologist who served 20 years on the Board of Pardons, "a life sentence becomes a death sentence."
To really understand this need for clemency, one must consider the individuals, the real people, involved. One of the most common categories of lifers whose sentences should be examined are the elderly prisoners who often committed their crimes in their youth. Prison administrations are now required to construct and staff geriatric units to care for these inmates, a burden both heavy and unnecessary. Equally important, some lifers, sentenced during their youth, grow up and mature during their incarceration and are well qualified to lead law-abiding, constructive lives in the community.
In response to this crisis, Friends in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting have established the Clemency Project. The Model Committee of this project, a group of experts in the criminal justice field, is developing a model for inmate application to the Board of Pardons. The model aims to implement practices derived from the Mennonite concept of restorative justice. Implementation of this model requires answering three questions following a criminal episode: How can the harm experienced by the victim, the offender, and the community best be addressed? How can public safety best be assured? In the event that the sentence is commuted, how will the community benefit? The goal is to provide an opportunity for healing for the victim, the offender, and the community, thus to replace retributive justice with restorative practices.
In response to these difficult-to-achieve objectives, the model requires the establishment of a Clemency Support Team responsible for processing the case through seven different phases. Emphasized are the needs of the victim to experience healing, accountability and atonement by the offender for the harm caused by the crime, and the offender’s pre-release preparation for re-entry into the community. The team consists of a victim specialist, an offender specialist, and a team monitor, responsible for the management of the case and coordination with public officials.
If the model is properly implemented and results in a commuted sentence, the candidate, the victim’s family, and the commonwealth all benefit. If the sentence is not commuted, the Board will have to justify the losses suffered by the victim, the community, and the offender as a result of its action. The appropriate case will provide an opportunity to illuminate the benefits of clemency and restorative practices in criminal proceedings.
The Clemency Project represents the need for a well-researched, Spirit-led, carefully thought out process for healing the trauma of a criminal act. It is designed to help the victim, the offender, and the community accept and prepare for the possibility of clemency; to present the person’s status and case to the Pardons Board and others; to help the offender, the victim, and the community heal from the trauma; and to ensure the well-being and safety of the public. It will provide hope to lifers who have grown in the Spirit and in their ability to contribute. It will offer the possibility of mercy. And if the project is able to meet its goals, it could establish a precedent for clemency proceedings nationwide.
Those who are moving forward with the Clemency Project need the support of faith communities as well as the public at large. If we are to change the attitudes of punishment and revenge, acknowledge the value of the individual (both victim and offender), and restore mercy and justice, we need to gather support for this project, for the restoration of clemency, and for the application of restorative practices.