More than 75 people gathered last night in the Freed Theater on the Christ Cathedral campus to hear from experts in the criminal justice system, as well as from those impacted by violent crimes, all of whom are committed to reforming our criminal justice system and ending the death penalty.
The evening event, titled “A more excellent way: Criminal Justice Reform in the Year of Mercy,” was inspired by a chapter from St. Paul to the Corinthians (12:26 “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it”), said Greg Walgenbach, director of the Office of Life, Justice and Peace, who opened the meeting.
He reminded the audience: “We are all sinners. We are all part of the human family and we live together in communities.” He noted that anthropologically we’re wired to find peace in our communities by scapegoating and that we need to rethink our approach to the criminal justice system.
“As a community we’re going to be entering into unfamiliar territory as we try to approach this way of mercy,” Walgenbach said. “We may not be comfortable…it may be a challenge for us.”
“What if we have no peace because we’ve forgotten that we belong to one another?” Walgenbach asked the audience. “What does it look like to pursue criminal justice reform; to pursue restoration and relationships in our community with that in mind?” With that, he set the tone for the evening that included presentations by victims of crimes, those who have been incarcerated for crimes and those who work to help prevent crime before it happens.
Steven Kim and Mary Vu from Project Kinship shared their mission with the audience: to help the formerly incarcerated to re-enter the community. The organization provides a range of programs including jail services, job training services and now school-based programs integrated into the school system and designed to prevent crime.
Kim asked the audience: “How do we undemonize what has been demonized?” Meaning, how do we show people who are released from prison that their lives matter?
One of the most compelling presentations of the evening was by Larry Tripp, a beneficiary of Project Kinship’s outreach, who was incarcerated for 18 years under the “three strikes law,” after being arrested for a stolen cell phone.
Dressed in a gray suit and looking polished at the podium, Tripp said candidly that he doesn’t recognize himself today.
“I am a man who is unfamiliar with whom I’ve become over the last few years,” Tripp said slowly and deliberately. He added that he has now dedicated his life to helping others. “My purpose is not about me,” he said. “My purpose is to give back, now.”
Bethany Webb, the sister of a victim of the 2011 mass shooting at the Salon Meritage in Seal Beach, CA, shared that despite losing her sister and other friends that day, she is not in favor of the death penalty for the confessed shooter.
“In the name of my sister and of my mom (who was the sole survivor of the shooting of 8 people that day), we’re saying together (that) we don’t want his death in our name.”
Webb shared that the Seal Beach shooter was angry and felt the only way to assuage his anger was to kill. Now, she said, proponents of the death penalty tell her that his execution will relieve her of her anger over his violent acts.
“Proposition 66 says that if you hold on to that anger and resentment, we’ll make you feel better when you witness the murder of someone else… I reject that,” Webb said adamantly.
Walgenbach noted that the California Catholic Conference is urging that voters support Proposition 62 by voting “yes” and reject Proposition 66 with a “no” vote.
The forum then moved to a discussion about the mass incarceration of people of color, with statistics presented by Miguel Hernandez, director, OCCCO and the Diocesan Pastoral Council.
“We incarcerate at a higher rate than any other country,” Hernandez said, pointing to a slide that reported that the U.S. jails 698 of every 100,000 people. Sixty percent of those incarcerated, he added, are people of color.
Hernandez spoke of the “school-to-prison pipeline,” in which certain students appear statistically destined for prison.
“In so many ways our actions don’t reflect our values,” he said. He pointed to a shift in resources in the Santa Ana School District that resulted in a dramatic drop in suspensions. Funds were moved to “restorative justice” programs from programs that were focused on punitive policies.
“Investing in restorative programs can reduce the school-to-prison pipeline,” he said, noting that in three years suspensions were reduced by 58 percent.
Jennifer Koh, director, Western State Immigration Clinic and Hairo Cortes, and an organizer with Orange County Immigration Youth United, asked the audience how many of them know someone who is here without documentation. Half of the audience raised their hands.
“Being undocumented is actually not a crime,” Koh said. “Not having papers to be here is not a criminal offense.” Our implementation of the law, she said, has made criminals out of the undocumented population. “Referring to people as illegals or aliens,” she said, “has a criminalizing affect, or the act of detaining them while waiting for possible deportation (putting them behind bars) makes them feel like a criminal.”
“There are rights that exist (in our criminal justice system) such as double jeopardy and the right to a defense attorney,” Koh said, “but none of those rights exist in, or apply to, immigration law.”
Koh concluded that in all parts of the legal and criminal justice system, three words should guide all: Dignity. Mercy. Grace.