Sunday, February 8, 2009

Is the Concept of Justice Politcally Irrelevant?

Mario Cuomo is probably one of my favorite politicians. Before Clinton, he was probably one of the most able political thinkers that I'd ever seen or heard. One phrase that I have found useful in a number of different contexts is, "We campaign in poetry; we govern in prose."

I was reminded of this, this past week when I traveled to Austin to work with the Innocence Project of Texas, a professor from University of Texas at Arlington and her interns to talk with legislators about increased compensation and support services for Texas' growing number of recently released, wrongfully convicted citizens - 'exonerees'.

The release of these men, most of whom, released because DNA evidence proved their innocence, has produced a legal and societal conundrum to the public. But there are others who have been, and will be released because of faulty eyewitness testimony, junk science, poor investigative techniques and rushes to judgement by local district attorneys. The significance of this? Once you begin to shine the spotlight on other causes of wrongful conviction, the more we will begin to see others (men and women), who have spent years, decades in many instances, behind prison bars for crimes they didn't commit.
So far, Dallas County, leads the nation in the number of exonerees at about 20. There will be more released from prison in the near future. When released, the compensation for their time in prison, must be obtained through legal process that requiring an attorney. The compensation is taxable. So let's say, after 20 years in prison, the exoneree is eligible for $50,000 for each year of wrongful incarceration. Taxed at 40%, that brings the compensation down to 600,000. Now add attorney's fees - usually about 33%. That brings the total down to $270,000. An exoneree with virtually no marketable skills, must find employment, housing, clothes, food and re-integrate himself or herself back into society. They also must find health care (physical and mental). Oh did I mention, that these are men who, after years in prison don't have much point of reference for handling lump sums of money?
One, such exoneree, Wiley Fountain, who did finally receive his compensation, now lives on the streets and abandoned homes in one of the poorest sections of Dallas. Those of us working, would say he frittered away his money. The fact is, there is no one there to provide financial or any other kind of counseling for him upon release.
While at the state capitol, the most part, we all received warm receptions from the legislators we visited. In some cases they, or their staff, went so far as to begin to suggest not only support for or improvements upon the legislation we came to talk with them about.
But two conversations that I was apart of bothered me.
I was with the UTA contingent with a representative I know well. After we exchanged pleasantries, we explained why we were there. She began to express her skepticism, and upbraid us essentially for our naivete with regards what it takes to get legislation passed. She was, she said, well aware of the situations to which we made reference. But she found it difficult to accept that there would be any public support for any increase in compensation or services owed these men. At one point she even said, "We have no idea, what these men would have been had they not been locked up", in response to our contention that the exonerees had lost their productive years in prison.
But, also what got to me was something else she said, when I said, that we cannot compound the injustice visited upon these men with the further injustice of abandoning them when they have been released. She bristled at the idea of the use of the word, 'injustice'. She, an African-American, said that we, black people, have been the victims of injustice all our lives and no one has cared, relative to the prison system, until the cases of these men came up.

Several things came to mind.
There was probably some jealousy, that Craig Watkins, Dallas County's first African-American District Attorney, has received credit for his work in overturning the convictions of these men. She has worked on issues in Texas State prisons for years and it is a fact, that she doesn't get the credit she deserves for it. Further, I know the use of the word 'injustice' places this argument on a moral plane with which most politicians, black, white or brown, have some resistance when having to deal daily with the 'prose' of governance.
Of course, there was also the question that most politicians ask when it comes to legislation like this, "Where will the money come from?" To which, we admittedly, came up with rather lame efforts to point out potential places for funding. Eventually, I finally said, 'That's why we pay you the big bucks. As citizens we place look to you to develop the legislation to correct this 'unfairness' (trying to find a synonym for 'injustice')." In all my years of dealing with the legislature, let's just say I've had finer moments.

More about the other disturbing conversation in the next post. But what bothers me about this one and the one I'll relay next: are we at the point where political sophistication means a type of strategic thinking that considers a word like 'injustice' irrelevant?
Great political seismic shifts in our country's political, social and cultural geography, have come because arguments for a moral framework have been posited. The Emancipation Proclamation (whatever Lincoln's personal and political motivations), would not have been possible had it not been for the work of abolitionists as well as the Civil War; it was the moral imperative raised to high relief, by the great social movements at the turn of the century that brought about child labor laws and women's suffrage; the Civil Rights Movement provided the moral template without which we would not have had the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, which protect the citizenship and franchise of all Americans.

When we talk of men and women who languish in prison because they're vulnerability to bigotry and expediency in our legal system, is it a matter of something else besides 'justice' to say that we owe these men something else besides a state sponsored 'Oops! Sorry about that!'?

I have some understanding of politics and the reality of the 'prose' associated with the process of getting legislation passed. But I am also still a preacher. And I still believe in the power of prophetic poetry, which stirs the hearts of men beyond all political systems, "Let justice roll down like waters; and righteousness like a mighty stream".
Even in our state's capitol, we've got to make room for that.

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