What Would a Transformative Justice System Look Like — Politically, Economically, Spiritually and Intellectually?


Editor’s Note: This is a piece written by a John Jay sociology professor, Jim Vrettos, and was part of a panel Professor Vrettos chaired at the recent Left Forum held at John Jay College in New York City, which took place from May 30 to June 1, 2014. The panel was entitled: What Would a Transformative Justice System Look Like —Politically, Economically, Spiritually and Intellectually? Other panelists included: Dr. Carl Hart – drug researcher and neuroscientist from Columbia University, Felipe Coronel – the political rapper known as Immortal Technique, Fania Davis — Executive Director of the Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth program in Oakland, California, and Tom Hayden -founder and director of the Peace and Justice Resource Center in Culver City, California.

“The mayor and the commissioner should begin a serious discussion of the future of “broken windows” policing, the strategy of relentlessly attacking petty offenses to nurture a sense of safety and order in high-crime neighborhoods, which, in theory, leads to greater safety and order. In reality, the link is hypothetical, as many cities and towns across the country have enjoyed historic decreases in violent crime since the 1990s, whatever strategies they used. And the vast majority of its targets are not serious criminals, or criminals at all.
(New York City Police Commissioner) William Bratton is a pioneer of broken windows policing and (New York City Mayor) Mr. de Blasio is a stout defender … Mr. Bratton should not be a once-innovative general fighting the last war. Mr. De Blasio was elected on a promise of being a transformative mayor who would recognize the times we live in and respect the communities whose residents fear the police. Now is the time to show it.”
New York Times Editorial —July 25, 2014

Everywhere today we see questioning, imagining, mobilizing and organizing of people into what they think America and the world can or should be. The work of completing America’s revolutionary and transformative promise and indeed, of all humankind’s hopes is now so immediate and profoundly necessary that the fate of the species and natural world literally is in the balance. And the radical left is also vigorously questioning the specter of America’s past and its present destructiveness and dysfunctionality.
Perhaps nowhere else can we see this struggle clearer than attempts to change America’s criminal justice system, nowhere else do we see the role clearer that progressives have played, are playing and can play as we try to finally get this right. And nowhere else can we see the revolutionary possibilities of America clearer than at this left forum conference where so many of its participants — many here today and included on this panel — have been in the forefront in seeing the need for this transformation.
All spectrums of the political, economic and moral order are involved in this debate and it becomes particularly important for the progressive left to have a coherent narrative and vision to offer. The hard -line, law and order, punitive perspective seems to be clear in what it believes. Its roots are in a fear-based, one-dimensional get’em before they get us view of life and human nature.
Punishment, retribution or the threat of punishment is at the centerpiece of this worldview that is cynically rooted in a paternalistic sense of perceived moral, economic and political superiority that creates and perpetuates dependent, scapegoat populations in a never-ending cycle of fear, mistrust, and violence. Programs and policies that flow from this perspective should be fairly obvious — “wars” on crime, drugs and terror, the death penalty, stop and frisk, mass incarceration, school to prison pipeline, solitary confinement, mandatory minimum sentences, “three strikes” laws, mass electronic surveillance of the domestic and foreign populations of the world are all good examples.
The failure of the hardline paradigm in the criminal justice system should be as apparent as the foreign policy failures of the hardline militaristic model that has not brought about a more peaceful, less violent world. And here are the facts for the last 40 plus years:
FBI data indicates that the U.S. murder rate is higher than nearly all other developed countries. Only Brazil, Mexico, Estonia and Russia have higher rates. The United States is one of the world’s most heavily-armed nations, with between one-third and one-half of Americans owning guns and strong political resistance to regulations on ownership. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime shows America with the highest reported crime rate in the world (based on all crimes and on formal contact with police and/or criminal justice systems). By this criteria America is the most unsafe country of the world’s top ten countries with the highest reported crime rate.
Our rate of violent crime such as murder or rape is from two to twenty times as high as it is in any of the other economically developed democracies. In 1967, Martin Luther King called the United States “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” His statement rings as true today as it did then as America continues to widen its lead in the developed world as the most violent country in the history of the world.

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And this is only part of the story. Almost 2.5 million Americans are presently housed in prisons and jails and this marks an increase of almost five times as many as there were in 1980. More than 60 percent are Black or Latino and with another five million people in the so-called reentry industry of probation and parole, almost one out of every 30 American adults is under some form of control of the prison military industrial complex. This number is dramatically raised when we look at figures indicating that one in every three young African American men will find themselves in the system at some point of their lives. Recidivism rates (the numbers of people who return to prison) remains at 70%. As 5% of the world’s population, we incarcerate 25% of the world’s inmates.
By whatever objective social scientific criteria you want to use as some indicator of success, the present criminal justice system and its hardline paradigm is a broken structure, a machine that has created and continues to create unimaginable human pain and misery and dehumanization for its victims and their jailers. It’s no wonder that cries have been heard to reform the system.
As a recent New York Times editorial put it:

“If there is any remaining disagreement about the destructiveness of this experiment of mass incarceration, it mirrors the so-called debate over climate change. In both cases, overwhelming evidence shows a crisis that threatens society as a whole. In both cases, those who study the problem have called for immediate correction.”

Notice the Times says correction —correcting the correctional system — not a radical restructuring or abolishment of it. It’s in the categories of what is to be done and how to do it that the reformers sound like they’re shuffling around the proverbial Titanic deck chairs.
Here’s the Times again:

“many of the solutions to this crisis are clear, even if the political path to them often is not: reduce sentence lengths substantially, provide more opportunities for rehabilitation inside prison, remove the barriers that keep people from rejoining society after they are released from prison, use alternatives to imprisonment for nonviolent offenders, drug addicts and the mentally ill, release elderly or ill prisoners, and rate prisons on their success in keeping former inmates from returning.”

Some of these reforms are certainly humane ones that progressives can support and could be stepping-stones toward a more radical transformative world, but many would keep the present system intact operating to diagnose, correct, rehabilitate or “punish” more humanely the same captive population.
But what would a revolutionary transformative America and its justice system look like? Keeping with the conference theme we are encouraged to NOT think in terms of absolutes and either/or solutions. The question is not reform OR revolution, or reform AND revolution but imagining what that transformative world might look like and working concretely toward bringing it about. A key element in that analysis and struggle is not resorting or settling for reforms that pacify or allow new systems of social control to emerge, perpetuating the same oppression and exploitation but only in different forms. Equal attention has to be placed on understanding the effect of reforms advocated toward a revolutionary transformation as much as the vision of what that transformation might look like. Another way of putting it is that we should try to understand what form this change might take and look like and guard against it becoming some of the same old, same old.
It should be obvious that a transformative justice system needs to clearly differentiate itself from both hardliners and reformers. It should see the criminal justice system as a reflection of the larger political, economic and moral order —often helping to maintain that order.
The same dynamics of control, domination and inhumanity occurring in our criminal justice system is duplicated in the abuse and destruction of the environment, endless wars, creation and perpetuation of poverty around the world, a destruction of true democracies and a crushing of the human spirit. To counteract that, the transformative message should be a message of love and “spiritual toughness” in the civil rights, welfare rights and human rights tradition. The prophetic tradition that speaks truth to power and is contained in all the great belief and secular humanist traditions is bedrock and cornerstone of what a transformative justice system and transformative world would look and sound like.

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For transformative change to occur, we would first need to see the links between a justice system and an economic system rooted and profiting by its desire to create scapegoats, perpetuate a never-ending cycle of fear, violence and militarism that rationalizes its control and domination of the resources of the environment and the people of the world for its greed. Economist Richard Wolff in his book,Democracy at Work and at this conference has eloquently pointed out this essential master-slave relationship in contemporary corporate America – a plutocracy and oligarchy of greed and privilege attempting to destroy what is left of our already limited democracy.
This economic master-slave relationship is even more clearly played out in our modern Jim Crow system of mass incarceration. Psychiatrist James Gilligan, the country’s foremost authority on violence, has pointed out that all rates of violence are higher in countries that have the most unequal distribution of wealth and income. It should not surprise anyone that the United States has the highest levels of violence and the highest levels of economic inequality in the developed world. And that economic inequality is played out most definitively in our prison and criminal justice system, which overwhelmingly incarcerates the poor and the very poor.
The May 25th Times edition that contained the editorial condemning mass incarceration also reported that more than 60,000 jailed immigrants -more than worked for any other single employer in the country– were used as a pool of cheap labor for federal detention centers — often making less than $1 a day. These are people who are civil detainees placed in holding centers and awaiting hearings to determine their legal status. Many of these detention centers are run by private prison companies and reflect the hardline perspective and the need for the wholesale warehousing of vast segments of the “dangerous classes” through the privatization of prisons.
A revolutionary transformative justice system would put an end to mass incarceration, including of course, the privatization of prisons and the use of punishment in any of its forms in that system. It would advocate the need to include extensive job and living wage programs. There would be an acknowledgement of the class and race based criminalization of entire communities and populations through polices of immigrant detention centers, stop and frisk, school to prison pipelines, stand your ground programs and mass incarceration itself. Solutions might include a guaranteed annual income, a national one-payer health system and a democratic socialization of work in which workers would democratically design and direct their enterprises.
It would mean an end to the drug war and the de-criminalization of all illicit drugs. We need to foster the establishment and availability of voluntary detoxification facilities for the use of addicts – without commitment or conviction – accessible to all people who wish to avail themselves of such opportunities. We need to think outside the “box” of punishment as the “answer” to the problem of crime and drugs and turn our attention from symptoms to the study of causes. More than any other individual working in the academic world today, Carl Hart is bridging the gap between the hard scientific data and the need to raise consciousness over the use and abuse of drugs that would transform our thinking and polices about the issue.
Secondly, for a transformative justice system to succeed we also need to see the links between a criminal justice system and a political system that has failed to remain true to the needs and aspirations of the overwhelming majority of its people. Tom Hayden as principle author of the 1962 Port Huron Statement used the concept of participatory democracy as part of a possible solution out of this political dilemma.
Perhaps the most celebrated of the statement’s ideas was a concept first developed by the American philosopher John Dewey. At its core is the belief that the decision-making of basic social consequences should be carried out by public groupings and that politics has the function of bringing people out of isolation and into community. Politics and the economy itself is of such social importance that its major resources and means of production should be open to democratic participation and subject to democratic social regulation.
In the field of criminal justice the concept of participatory democracy would be an integral part of a transformative justice system that would focus on the groups most affected by the system — the formerly incarcerated and their families should be mobilized as beacons of conscience and education for us all concerning the demeaning cruel and inhumane system they have witnessed firsthand or through their precious family members. We would expect from their movement a call to end mass incarceration by abolishing prison, abolishing the death penalty, establishing communal courts, making education a constitutional and human right, and generally making human needs more important than property needs.
None of this means that those who have been incarcerated and oppressed are somehow more inherently just and on a higher moral plane. Reversing of roles would probably create similar outcomes but the class structural role the oppressed experience would probably influence them to try and shape the political and economic forces and institutions that try to shape their life chances and thus give us all a better idea of what oppression and exploitation is all about.
Transformative justice and support for ex-offender and prisoner rights groups would ideally enable others to see the interconnection of these groups and their own exploited political and economic situation. Support for these groups is in effect, support for the rights of masses of ordinary people who would make connections to their own daily struggles and frustrations and those of a forgotten, abused “other.” It would also make it more difficult for them to serve as convenient scapegoat roles where venom, fear and racism are directed at them rather than at the political and economic elites whose polices and ideologies created the unjust environments and criminal justice sanctions in the first place.
Thirdly, for a transformative change to occur, we also need to see the link between a justice system and a healing and spiritual transformation emphasizing our common humanity and love for the earth and all its inhabitants. We need to look at possible alternatives to our present system by understanding that our present criminal justice and reentry industries are a result of a complex interaction linked to an outdated and increasingly dysfunctional fear-based view of human nature.
We agree with Angela Davis when she argues that we would need a “demilitarization of school, revitalization of education at all levels, a health system that provides free physical and mental care to all, and a justice system based on reparation and reconciliation rather than retribution and vengeance.” We agree with Cornel West’s call to resurrect the great revolutionary prophetic traditions of all peoples. The Black prophetic tradition in particular within the American experience must be nurtured and heard. It’s what West says gives the leaven to the American democratic loaf and without which much of the best of America would be lost.
And it is within the jails of America, its detention centers, the super-max prisons and solitary confinement cells of tens of thousands of souls, and the brave prophetic voices of countless political prisoners like Mumia Jamal that America can begin to learn to heal and transform itself. Truth and reconciliation committees need to be established to heal the profound hurts and dysfunctional behavior rampant in American culture.
Parole and probation workers in our re-entry industry should be trained and educated to work with their clients to help them achieve full independence and autonomy from the system – in other words they need to put themselves out of their present jobs and be re-trained to work with clients in a voluntary non-punitive capacity — free as much as possible of the threat of future incarceration. Laws denying employment, housing, voting, education and public benefits for the formerly incarcerated must be repealed. Our parole and probation workers should be rewarded not for their snooping and surveillance skills but for their efforts in helping to create truly autonomous and freer human beings.
Fania Davis represents another major component of what a truly transformative justice system would look like and is in the forefront of the restorative justice movement. Healing the hurts and shame that we all carry around with us through love and nurturing is at the center of the restorative and transformative movements.
We need to specify the conditions or variables that can enable love and caring to grow without it being inhibited by feelings of shame or guilt. The conditions that are most important in giving rise to shame or guilt are relative poverty, race and age discrimination, sexual asymmetry, and distorted spiritual values such as cynical realism — the belief that nothing can fundamentally change and we need to acquiesce to that reality.
Any movement that needs to counteract and transform the fatalism and cynicism of our time desperately needs the poets, the troubadours, the artists, and the musicians who sing truth to power in a gritty no-holds barred way that touches the deepest recesses of our mind, soul and spirituality and reaches the hardest of hearts. The creative musical genius of Felipe Coronel -Immortal Technique – manifested through his music of love and life, represents this all important link absolutely central to bringing about a transformative world.
Finally, for transformative change to occur, we need to see the links between America’s criminal justice system and an academic, educational structure that Noam Chomsky would say “designs and implements policies, interprets historical events and formulates an ideology of social change that in part falsifies, in part restricts, and subverts it.”
These academics and administrators are often the new careerist Mandarins of their day – go along, get along, group-thinkers. Many public intellectuals and academics in America today are in a privileged and almost singular position able to use their political liberty, access to information and freedom of expression along with the leisure, facilities and training that are afforded them to become involved in vanguard efforts that go beyond the veiled distortions of vested and privileged interests.
But they don’t get involved by and large as they opt for a world of comforting illusion. For a transformative justice system to develop the academic world needs to tear down literally and figuratively the walls that have been constructed intellectually and morally to separate us from those that we analyze, compute, document, theorize about and design policies for.
Public intellectuals, administrators and academics need to get out of their offices and departmental meetings, and show some moral courage like scholar and academic Cornel West, who demonstrated his prophetic, revolutionary Christianity and transformative justice beliefs by getting arrested protesting NYPD stop and frisk policies. As important as the academic research was concerning stop and frisk policies, and it was, the subsequent 2012 stop and frisk demonstration and trial did more to turn around the narrative in New York City about Stop and Frisk than the mountains of academic research on the subject.
We are in one of those privileged institutions right now — ground zero for the criminal justice academic community — in the belly of the beast. The transformative vision of the role of the public intellectual and academic left activist at a place like John Jay would be a critical one that as Tom Hayden puts it, analyzes the “complicated and disturbing paradoxes in our surrounding America.” And as Chomsky argues: “if we as academics and public intellectuals claim to uphold any set of ethical or moral standards, and if we wish to be consistent, then we must apply to others the standard we apply to ourselves. We should analyze our actions rigorously, instead of allowing ourselves to be blinded by the rhetoric of powerful interest groups.”
It should be more and more apparent that a transformative justice system along the political, economic, spiritual and intellectual line we’ve described would represent a major difference in most of the thinking of both the hardliners and reformers. We hope to carry out this dialogue as Port Huron tried to do – a living document open to change with our time that would be a beginning of a dialogue with society. We are open to, as Port Huron was, a transformative radical left that was not static and operating under some ideological deterministic model but able to see “complicated and disturbing paradoxes in our surrounding America.”
And we want you in the audience to join us in bringing about the transformative world we’ve being talking about. We want you to democratically participate in this transformation of our criminal justice system by supporting and signing a petition that would encourage John Jay College of Criminal Justice to change its name to John Jay College of Transformative Justice. Words and concepts are important as academics and all of us understand. There is nothing sacred to any particular name or title of any institution. The War Department was renamed the Department of Defense, Sing Sing prison’s name was changed to Ossining Correctional Facility in 1970 and then in 1985 renamed Sing Sing Correctional Facility. “Sing Sing,” was derived from the name of a Native American Nation “Sinck Sinck,” from whom the land was purchased in 1685.
It’s the people that make these institutions fully alive and have meaning and they should be a reflection of their concerns. Transformative justice is at its core about creating more democracy and allowing our institutions to be reflective of those democratic interests. And that’s what is needed to heal and transform the unfinished experiment that is America.

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Help us transform John Jay College, American justice, America itself and the world.
Sign the PETITION or EMAIL THE AUTHOR (jvrettos@jjay.cuny.edu) so that next year when the left forum meets, it will meet at the John Jay College of Transformative Justice.

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Jim Vrettos is a sociologist and criminologist at John Jay College in New York City

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