Monday, April 4, 2016

A Thought on “Unlock Justice:” the 2016 FCNL Lobby Weekend Event

ESR student Karen A. Bradley shares her thoughts after attending Friends Committee on Legislation's Spring Lobby Weekend: 

Over Spring Break I had the opportunity to attend the “Unlock Justice” Lobby Weekend sponsored by the Friends Committee on National Legislation, in Washington DC. As a nontraditional student, I was--let's just say--“a tad” bit older than most of the participants, about 400 Quaker and Quaker-inspired high school and college students. The purpose of the event was to train and excite young activists in lobbying as an advocacy practice.  Participants spent three days learning about the issue and one day actually lobbying their state senators and representatives on Capital Hill. It was a high energy event to say the least.  These young adults were amped up on their political and religious passions.  Even the moments of Quaker silence shimmered in palpable effervescence. 

Sentencing reform was the substantive focus of the lobby weekend. In particular, mandatory sentencing, especially for small drug crimes, that has filled our prison systems with essentially non-violent, minimal crime offenders who end up with very long maximum sentences. There is also evidence that this affects poor and minority communities disproportionately. Much needs to be done to reform these laws.  That is why FCNL chose this issue for the lobby weekend.  It is an essential step in having a more fair and just approach to imprisonment in America.

I care very much about this issue. As I looked over the 400 students packed into the hotel conference room, I also thought about my own nephew, Joshua, who sits in a prison in Oklahoma. It isn't one of those extreme examples we heard about at the conference.  He is an ordinary rural kid in his early 30s who was arrested for selling “meth.”  It sounds bad and dangerous but he is not that formidable.  Josh grew up in a low income home and community.  He has a dad who died of an overdose. He has multiple learning disabilities including ADHD.  They tried Ritalin at the time but eventually, because Josh didn't have access to health care, he didn't have any access to treatment.  He dropped out of school in 8th grade and began self medicating with speed (oddly kids with hyperactivity actually feel more calm when they take speed.)  Because he didn't complete school, he struggled to find jobs.  He moved through a variety of them, all minimum wage. For the most part, he attempted to do well in them. Even when he did do well, the pay was hardly enough to live on.  His growing involvement with drugs grew out of the lack of economic opportunities, the on-going issues with learning disabilities, a narrative on rural masculinity, and a whole host of other things.  There were times he had more opportunities then others. He has a loving, supportive family.  Even so, Josh never really pulled his life together; his drug use grew worse.  His crime, the “selling” of meth, was simply him passing on enough to a few friends in order to pay for his own habits.  So now he is in prison for three years and he has several substantial fines he must pay when he gets out.

It is hard to imagine how this scenario is going to yield anything other than more failure in his life.  What “lesson” will he learn in prison that will make his life better when he gets out? He has a drug addiction, learning disabilities, and a learned way of life that centers on tough masculinity.  He needs adequate health care.  He needs education. He needs a minimum wage that he can live on.  He needs job opportunities that are meaningful.  He needs an alternative way of thinking about the world that gives him hope.

Joshua is only slightly older than the young Quaker lobbyists who marched into senator and representative offices on Capital Hill to speak their minds.  Their life paths are very different.  There isn't anything the young Quakers can do to directly to undo the unevenness between their more blessed lives and the lives of poor rural white kids in Oklahoma. But that those students take the time to invest their blessings in ways to intervene in the system and to demand attention to the cause of peace and justice is truly a beautiful thing. It inspires me to work harder and it gives me hope. 

The tag line for the whole weekend was “Tell congress why you want to “unlock justice.”--the source of many videos that were posted on social media.  Here is my response.  Why do I want to “unlock justice?”  Because I believe that prison sentences are no substitute for adequate education, affordable health care, and a functioning economy.  

Quaker young adults, you rock!

See for yourselves: photos up on Facebook

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