“To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.”
– Proverbs 21:3 (NKJV)
As we enter the New Year, I am thinking about change. I suppose I’m always thinking about change, but at this time of year I feel a little less alone. Some people are thinking about changing their daily routine or their job. Others are debating a new exercise regimen. Yet it feels like there is a growing number of people who are finally starting to think, speak, and act a little deeper about their relation to change. And their responsibility to change.
There exists in our society an unspoken obligation upon each of us: we are obligated to change. Babies are supposed to grow into children; children are supposed to grow into adults; adults are supposed to grow into parents; parents are supposed to grow into grandparents; and grandparents are supposed to grow into old children before they die. It’s the beautiful cycle of life.
Then you have sayings like, “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” I have a lot of respect for the wisdom of Rumi’s writings, but every time I read this particular quotation, I get disproportionately aggravated, for in it I hear the excuses of so many “wise” people hiding their cowardice, refusing to risk their comfort while they live and work in environments rife with suffering and injustice.
“Things have always been this way,” they say. “You can’t change other people; you can only change yourself.” “You can’t change a system; it’s just too hard, too complicated.” “People won’t listen to me; who am I to do this work?” The list of excuses is long and infuriating, but you get the idea.
I used to accept these excuses as valid reasons for not getting involved in efforts to change the criminal legal system. Even worse, I used to be the one saying them. No more.
I am beginning the year 2022 with a heart dedicated to enacting change in the criminal legal system. You may have noticed that I’m now using that term instead of “criminal justice system,” and that is intentional. I recently read a blog post published by the Vera Institute of Justice titled, “Why We Say ‘Criminal Legal System,’ Not ‘Criminal Justice System.’” The author, Erica Bryant, rightly states that the systems of “policing, prosecution, courts, and corrections in the United States … do not deliver justice, nor have they ever.” The system we have does not deserve the name Justice.
In the 13 years I have been observing and experiencing this finely tuned legal oppression machine, I have yet to see justice realized. Not once. Nowhere. To change the criminal legal system, we must change the law.
The State Legislature is resuming their 130th session on Jan. 5. My focus is on three bills that I need your help to support:
- LD 1175 – An Act To Prohibit Excessive Telephone, Video and Commissary Charges in Maine Jails and Prisons. We need to abolish the excessive fees Maine families pay for the privilege of loving an incarcerated person. There is no reason a 15-minute phone call should cost a hurting family nearly $5 (see Samantha Hogan’s Maine Monitor article, “As families struggle to afford 15-minute phone calls from jail, Maine counties rake in millions”).
- LD 1862 – An Act To Strengthen Maine’s Good Samaritan Laws. We need to stop the criminal legal system from punishing people for calling 9-1-1 from the scene of a drug overdose. No one should be punished for trying to do the right thing, especially when they are in the middle of a terrifying situation.
- LD 842 – An Act to Reestablish Parole in Maine. We need to stop allowing judges and prosecutors to use incarceration to kill people. I made a comprehensive case in favor of parole in my November 2021 column [“Creating Safer Communities with Supportive Parole”], so here I’ll just add that the current system leaves no room for the human capacity to change and transform (which, again, is something that happens all the time).
You can be a part of changing our criminal legal system for the better. If any of the aforementioned excuses have come out of your mouth lately, now is your chance to redirect your heart towards action. I need your help to support each of these three bills. Reach out to your state representative and senator and let them know that you support this legislation. Let this year be a year of real change. Let’s start doing justice in this criminal legal system.
Leo Hylton is an incarcerated graduate student at George Mason University’s Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution. His education and work are focused on Social Justice Advocacy and Activism, with a vision toward an abolitionist future. You can reach him at: Leo Hylton #70199, 807 Cushing Road, Warren, ME, 04864, or firstname.lastname@example.org.