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Reforming a criminal justice system in crisis

The General Assembly considers a new Statement of Conscience.
By Warren R. Ross
May/June 2005 5.1.05

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"The United States has become a nation of incarceration." Thus begins the Statement of Conscience that delegates to this year's General Assembly will be asked to approve.

The statement goes on to explain that there is a crisis in our criminal justice system, that the U.S. incarceration rate is five- to tenfold that of other democracies. On the federal, state, and local levels, we rely increasingly on harsh sentencing, longer terms, racial and ethnic profiling, and deplorable jail and prison conditions.

Because "the magnitude of the injustices and inequities of this system are in discord with all the United States stands for," the statement asks delegates to affirm that "as a faith community committed to the inherent goodness and possibility of each of us, we are compelled to speak truth to this dissonance between our promises and practice."

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Says Rob Keithan, director of the UUA Washington Office for Advocacy: "We need to stand up in our communities and say that it is wrong to focus on punishment rather than prevention or rehabilitation, and that it's wrong to focus on the poor and people of color. Given how many UUs work in social services and law, I think we can really have an impact."

Getting a Statement of Conscience on the General Assembly agenda is no easy matter. It takes years of persistence, and if it had not been for the Young Religious Unitarian Universalists (YRUU) it might never have happened.

In 2000, the annual YRUU Social Justice Conference chose prison reform as its major issue of concern for the next two years and elected Shea Schachameyer to be the working action manager to coordinate the effort. According to Megan Selby, the intern working in the UUA Youth Office that year, the 2001 conference included not only workshops but also a tour of a prison run by the Correction Corporation of America. Says Selby: "It was quite an experience as to just how disgusting this kind of place is, even though they tried to present it in a completely normal, necessary, humane, and rehabilitory way." The delegates were then given information about the prison system that they were asked to disseminate at their local and district level.

Meanwhile Schachameyer had arranged with her home congregation, the Unitarian Church North of Mequon, Wisconsin, to nominate criminal justice as a candidate for the Study/Action Issue to be selected at the 2001 General Assembly. She also ran a workshop on the subject at GA, and members of both the Youth Caucus and the Young Adult Caucus supported it eloquently from the floor.

Though another laudable issue received more votes, the young people did not give up.

"The reason we were so focused on prison reform is that we have a strong commitment to antiracism and anti-oppression," says Lydia Perot-Hobbs, YRUU's current working action manager, "and we see these as very connected issues." YRUU saw to it that the motion was reintroduced in 2002 and again in 2003, when finally it was selected as the 2003-2005 Study/Action Issue.

Having been adopted, the Study/Action Issue was referred to the UUA's Commission on Social Witness, which in turn circulated a resource guide to all congregations and districts, and asked for comments. A workshop was held at last year's GA.

Based on these comments and discussions, the commission prepared the draft Statement of Conscience, again sent it to all congregations and districts, waited for further comments, and placed the final draft on this year's GA agenda, where it will be the subject of a mini-assembly to hear any further proposed changes. (To obtain the full text, visit www.uua.org/csw.)

Now it's up to the delegates in Fort Worth. The Statement of Conscience may be adopted by a two-thirds majority, referred for one more year of study and action, or dropped. If approved, it becomes the official UUA position that the Washington office will present to the government and the public.

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