Saturday, January 1, 2011

Gladys and Jamie Scott: Is This Justice?

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Luke 4:16-21

Jesus began his ministry by proclaiming “release to the captives.” From the beginning, his teachings make us uncomfortable and challenge our assumptions.

I find myself reflecting on Jesus’ proclamation as I read that Gladys and Jamie Scott have been set free, that Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour announced that he is suspending their prison terms.

The sisters have been serving consecutive life sentences in a state prison in Mississippi for their (alleged) role in a 1993 robbery in which no one was hurt and $11 was stolen.

The sisters were not pardoned, and their prison terms were suspended, not commuted, on the condition that Gladys donate a kidney to Jamie, who is seriously ill with hypertension and diabetes and receives dialysis three times weekly. In his column in the New York Times, Bob Herbert writes, “Gladys had long expressed a desire to donate a kidney to her sister, but to make that a condition of her release was unnecessary, mean-spirited, inhumane and potentially coercive. It was a low thing to do.”

In a statement about the release, Governor Barbour said, “Their incarceration is no longer necessary for public safety or rehabilitation, and Jamie Scott’s medical condition creates a substantial cost to the state of Mississippi.”

In other words, this isn’t about justice, it’s about saving the state money.

Christians have a hard time with “release to the captives,” or the many other admonitions to set the prisoners free. We know that setting the prisoners free is a sign of the coming Kingdom of God, but we are more comfortable with freeing people from metaphorical “prisons,” than real ones. And that makes sense. We want the bad guys to be locked up. And we have to have some way to protect the community.

But the case of the Scott sisters is a good time to reflect on the criminal justice system. Keeping dangerous people off of the streets, and preventing them from hurting others, are worthy and just goals. Beyond that, we hope for restorative (rather than retributive) justice that rehabilitates people and restores them to community.

In reality, who goes to prison is determined too much by race and class. The Scott sisters, who are poor African-Americans, got consecutive life sentences for stealing $11. The Wall Street brokers who helped send the country (and the world) to the brink of financial catastrophe with schemes that created, promoted and sold intentionally risky investments while simultaneously betting against them, got . . . richer . . . . It is hard to see the justice in that.

Crime is real. Prisons are necessary. But the system can and should be more just than it is.

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