“Injustice prevails where hopelessness persists.”
— Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy
In today’s world it is really easy to find ourselves lost in a place between hopelessness and helplessness. COVID-19 is running rampant. Some people believe it’s a hoax, while many are living with its devastating presence as the absence of a loved one. Even with the presidential election finalized, political tensions remain high. Incidents of domestic violence continue to rise behind closed doors. Children and families are barely getting by, often going to bed hungry. To top it all off, there are men, women and, yes, children sitting in jails and prisons, unable to contribute to the well-being of their families.
With all these issues (plus the laundry list not included here), how are we supposed to think we can do anything to make things better? How can we respond to this mountain of problems?
Well, pick one, and grab some friends. None of us can solve these complex issues on our own, but when we join our efforts with those of like mind, the impossible suddenly becomes a little less daunting.
I have chosen the issue of criminal justice reform, and my group of like-minded friends is growing by the day. In a recent Zoom meeting with my fellow NAACP Executive Board officers, I received an infusion of hope from our long-standing champion. State Rep. Rachel Talbot-Ross reaffirmed for me that there are some truly decent people willing to stand up for what is right, even when it isn’t popular.
The American criminal justice system is not broken. To the contrary, it works exceptionally well. Each policy, procedure and law was established with great effort and care. Every time a spotlight has been shone on an aspect of the system’s blatant cruelty, racism or oppressive tactics, the policy is altered just enough to create the appearance of positive change. Meanwhile, despite these superficial “reforms,” incarcerated citizens remain in a cycle of dehumanization, and the astronomical recidivism rate ensures the system is self-perpetuating.
These issues are local, as well as national. Right here in Maine, thousands of families are missing potentially game-changing streams of income from their incarcerated sons, daughters, mothers and fathers. Not everyone who has committed a crime is a criminal. Many of the men I speak with are desperate for an opportunity to prove their worth as a human being to their families. They want to work, to provide for their loved ones, to contribute to their communities — to try, in some small way each day, to make right some of their wrongs.
Thankfully, there are some truly decent people in positions of authority who want to see these opportunities afforded to those who are ready to make the most of them. They understand that once a person is truly rehabilitated, keeping them incarcerated does not benefit Maine’s communities in any way. Instead, the longer a person remains confined after reaching that stage of growth, the more likely they are to become stagnant, bitter and hopeless. By the time they are finally released, they have succumbed to the institutionalization they fought so hard against, and step out of prison feeling helpless — a further burden to those they love.
With the upcoming state legislative session, you have the chance to make a real difference in the lives of thousands of Maine residents. Let your local representative* know how you feel about the need for parole (no, we don’t have parole in Maine). Tell them we need creative avenues by which incarcerated citizens can safely return to their communities when they have achieved true rehabilitation. Show the Governor that the people of Maine genuinely believe in second chances and will support steps toward treatment and education over excessive sentences for those of us who have made bad choices that we want to make right.
There will be a host of corrections-related bills in the upcoming Maine legislative session. When public hearings are held, please let your voice be heard in real-time. If you don’t want to speak, write a short letter of support** and ask that it be read on your behalf. And, when you finish reading this column, go start a conversation with one other person about these issues. Doing so will take courage, and you may be met with resistance. But if you won’t talk about it, who will?
Feeling hopeless and helpless is a choice. When you feel overwhelmed by all that is wrong in the world, clear your mind and remember that “tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts…” (Romans 5:3-5; New King James Version).
Pick an issue, grab some friends and get to work!
*Go to legislature.maine.gov/house and search by your town to find your representative.
**Address your correspondence to lawmakers on the Criminal Justice Committee, such as Bill Pluecker (Bill.Pluecker@legislature.maine.gov); the Judiciary Committee, like Jeffrey Evangelos (Jeffrey.Evangelos@legislature.maine.gov) and Thom Harnett (Thomas.Harnett@legislature.maine.gov); or to Rep. Talbot-Ross (Rachel.TalbotRoss@legislature.maine.gov).