Iowa has the dubious distinction of ranking at the top of the nation for the number of African Americans per capita in the criminal justice system. We’ve been at the top of that list for a decade. If we hope to create a just society — the kind of society Isaiah envisions for us in Scripture this Advent season — we have to examine the root causes of racial disparity and address each one. We’ve got to be willing to support efforts such as Scott County Drug Court, financially and otherwise, that work for systemic change one individual at a time.
Dominic, a 30-year-old African American, is one of them. He’s in the last phase of Scott County Drug Court, which serves as an alternative to prison. Drug Court takes a non-adversarial team approach in providing addicted offenders with a holistic opportunity to recover from their addiction and avoid continued criminal activity. It is labor intensive, with plenty of face time between a Drug Court participant and probation officers, attorneys and counselors. Dominic said his team is very involved in his life, providing guidance and advice, and in one case, even a bicycle to help him get to work. Because the team is so involved, Dominic said, “When you have issues, you can’t hide them. A lot of times that’s a good thing; they try to force you to deal with stuff about yourself.” As a result, he’s thriving: working two jobs, receiving counseling, paying off a car, getting his driving privileges restored and becoming a better role model for his children.
Dominic wasn’t aware that Iowa has the highest number of African Americans per capita in the criminal justice system, but it doesn’t surprise him. He believes that the court system and the community at large don’t have the time, money or inclination to consider each offender’s potential for hope and redemption. He said he was three weeks away from entering the Army, with hopes of eventually becoming a dentist, when he was arrested on drug delivery charges at age 18. But he was also homeless and without a job. Selling drugs was an easy way to meet basic needs.
Our society must recognize that poverty impacts a person’s success in school, the ability to graduate, hold a job and support a family. Please dispel the myth that we’re coddling the poor when we offer financial support for such necessities as food, shelter, child care, health care, transportation and job training.
When people turn to drugs or alcohol to resolve their problems and wind up in prison, they can get sucked into a vortex of hopelessness or pessimism. Prison inmates have high rates of substance abuse, illiteracy and mental illness, our U.S. bishops state in a 2000 statement on restorative justice titled “Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration.” The bishops point out that “community-based substance abuse programs and programs that address behaviors that lead people to crime are far less expensive than similar programs in prison and produce effective and encouraging results.” Indeed, the average cost per day for a Drug Court participant in Iowa was $21.47 in Fiscal Year 2015, compared with $93.61 for a prison inmate, according to the Iowa Department of Corrections. Cost effectiveness should not be our overarching goal. Human flourishing should be. The bishops’ statement is well worth reflecting on this Advent season (http://tinyurl.com/zexxltl).
Restorative justice is among the legislative priorities of the Iowa Catholic Conference (ICC) for 2017. The ICC notes that “a Catholic approach begins with the recognition that the dignity of the human person applies to both victim and offender. Our response to sin and failure is not abandonment and despair, but justice, contrition, reparation and return or re-integration of all into the community.” The ICC supports sentencing reform that emphasizes community-based corrections for prisoners who are not a threat to the community and that give greater latitude to judges when deciding appropriate penalties. Visit the ICC website (www.iowacatholicconference.org) to express support for their efforts on this and other life-affirming issues.
Contact your Iowa legislators to support funding for Drug Court (https://www.legis.iowa.gov/) or consider volunteering as a Drug Court mentor by contacting diocesan Social Action Director Kent Ferris at email@example.com. Ferris, a mentor himself, knows that Dominic, and others who have been given the opportunity to flourish, will pay it forward.
Barb Arland-Fye, Editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org