Punishment or forgiveness?The Interfaith Council hosts a forum on the justice system.
June 9, 2008 · Updated 3:38 PM
"Josh, a Colville Indian, was 15 in 1999 when he accidentally shot and killed his sister at their Yakima home.They wouldn't let me see him. They kept him handcuffed, said Vicky, Josh's mother, describing her son's isolation for seven hours of police questioning. Josh's court-appointed attorney started his own investigation a week before trial. Josh was brought to court heavily sedated for suicide watch - and then was characterized for jurors as remorseless and unfeeling. He was sentenced to 15 years in a prison for adult offenders by a judge citing a policy of no tolerance for handguns.Issues raised by stories like Josh's - children tried as adults, civil liberties eroded through get tough on crime tactics, racial profiling and other problems of the criminal justice system - are the focus of a community forum, sponsored by the Bainbridge-North Kitsap Interfaith Council Feb. 24.Justice in the Justice System is the first major activity organized and undertaken by the council, said Iver MacDougall, retired attorney and one of the forum's organizers.The Interfaith Council invites representatives from North Kitsap's faith communities to work together on social and ethical issues despite faith differences. The forum on justice will present speakers representing different vantage points within the justice system, including federal public defender Tom Hillier, and Mary Woodward, who administers Kitsap County's diversion program on Bainbridge, offering island youth an alternative to the court system.Activist Sarah Ruth van Gelder, whose YES! A Journal of Positive Futures is published on Bainbridge for an international readership, characterizes the criminal justice system as a two-decade arms race between liberals and conservatives. An inmate population that has gown tenfold to 2,000,000 - supporting a bureaucracy van Gelder dubs the prison-industrial complex - is one result.She says that both Amnesty International and the United Nations Commission on Torture cited the United States this year for its treatment of prisoners, especially women and youth.According to van Gelder, a young inmate like Josh has two choices: find a permanent consort who will protect him from the prison population at large, or be subjected to the brutality of the whole group.What does it say about us as a society if we sentence people to brutality and rape? van Gelder asks. Let's look at alternatives to the punishment mentality. We on Bainbridge assume that our children deserve a second chance. It's one of the questions all the religious traditions grapple with: When do you punish and when do you forgive?Van Gelder's fall issue of YES! was devoted to an examination of the penal system, including some alternative prisons, like the glamour slammer in San Francisco offering women inmates intensive counseling, training and education programs. IFC forum speaker Greg Rustand runs an alternative prison in Whatcom County. Rustand's program, which is a privately run home-based community jail, houses 50 misdemeanor inmates and is the first of its kind in Washington State. We house people who may have shoplifted or have a 'driving under the influence' citation, Rustand said. We book them in, so to speak. Inmates continue working at jobs they had, but pay for their incarceration on a sliding scale of $12 to $28. The Whatcom alternative differs sharply from the harsher environment of the standard jail and the $55 it costs taxpayers to maintain each prisoner there. If it is true, as MacDougall and others believe, that the pendulum has begun to swing away from mandatory minimum sentencing, three strikes, you're out, the war on drugs and other get-tough sloganeering, then the IFC forum may be a well-timed attempt to raise consciousness and also look at how some are finding workable solutions to justice system problems. The IFC is not necessarily taking positions, because some of these proposals will be very controversial, MacDougall said, but at least it's the beginnings of a re-examination and a dialogue.The Community Forum on Justice in the Justice System will be held 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Feb. 24 at Bainbridge Commons. Call 780-0835 or 842-9395 for information. "