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The Ironic Quality of Mercy :

A Call for Amnesty

by G. Patrick Callahan, Prisoner of War in America

A recent USA Today headline read "Yeltsin hoping to free 35,000 from prison." The article explained how the Russians are proposing to grant amnesty to nearly 500,000 prisoners and former prisoners. Boris Yeltsin, eager to remain in the Council of Europe, which is opposed to the death penalty, has also instituted a moratorium on executions in Russia. Along with the fall of the Russian police state comes a remarkable quality of mercy.

In July, an Italian military court convicted a former Nazi S/S captain of taking part in the war time slaughter of 335 civilians on the outskirts of Rome. The court showed the German national leniency by reducing his sentence from 15 years to 5 years. Tullie Zevi, a leader of Italy's Jewish community said, "A life sentence would have given a strong symbolic message. We did not get a life sentence, but we did not want to be cruel and vindictive." Imagine that - and compare it to the American approach, where overly punitive sentencing guidelines have judges handing out 20 year sentences to non-violent first offenders like hot roasted nuts at a ball game. Never mind the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the Eighth Amendment, whatever in the world happened to compassion and common sense in this country? Compared to the Italian example, New York recently sentenced a teenage girl to 20 years in prison for brokering a small cocaine sale.

Ex-President George Bush, with his tongue in cheek, called for a "kinder, more gentle America." This was just before he launched operation "Just Cause" which killed nearly 500 Panamanians and a score of American troops and did tens of million in property damage-all to capture a solitary tin horn dictator who the US itself helped into power. The Soviet Union was, by contrast, The Evil Empire. But as the so-called Evil Empire was dismantling its war machinery and moving toward at least de facto humanitarianism, the kinder, more gentle America arrested its ten millionth drug law violator and maintained international arms sales totaling $10 billion annually. It is a sinister paradox: a country that extols the rhetoric, hardware and actions of war in so many of its undertakings while it simultaneously mouths self-righteous platitudes about peace, freedom and its Christian virtues. The United States has been strangled by the twin forces of law and war for so long that it no longer comprehends what freedom and peace really are. We have lost our respect for freedom and replaced it with a reverence for things and an avarice for power. In high speed, mercantile societies, the wage earner/consumer becomes a hive drone, too wearied by the workday to grasp the rat-gnaw on rights and liberty. If the Average Joe does not soon glance up from his PC., there will be 6 million people in prison by 2015. As it is there are nearly 1.7 million incarcerated- and we believe it is time to address this disastrous course: there are criminal records on one fifth of the entire adult population.

Although throughout history there is a continuum in the religious and secular practice of amnesty and pardon, the United States remains locked in a cycle of ever expanding laws and regulations and massive punishment for infractions of them, all without provision for relief or mitigation despite every indication of the wastefulness and uselessness of such policy. Indeed, after the 1996 US Judicial Conference, three quarters of the federal judiciary considered the current Sentencing Guidelines too rigid, too punitive and too complicated, requiring either outright scrapping or at least thorough overhauling. The Attorney General herself stated that US Attorneys were using the Guidelines unwisely and overcharging certain classes of defendants, mainly drug law violators.

These warnings have apparently gone unheeded. The Clinton Administration has pardoned fewer individuals than its republican predecessors, thus setting the standard for federal intransigence at every level. While presidential pardons are sparingly given, even in the best of times, we submit that this is not good enough. We have an epidemic of imprisonment and what is required to alleviate this orgy of incarceration with its attendant, endless need for prisons, is a general amnesty, the likes of which have sound historical precedent. Such an amnesty ought to expunge the felony record and restoration of civil rights for first or second time non-violent offenders, reason being that felony records literally haunt an individual to his grave. Of what conceivable use is further handicapping a person who makes an honest attempt at gainful, productive, family sustaining employment opportunity? How does the felony record penalty figure into the debt a violator has already paid to society? It is, in fact, an affront to the idea of society: it limits employment prospects, reduces tax revenue, eliminates voting rights for vast segments of minority members and causes in large measure the high rates of recidivism this country experiences with its ex-convicts.

We have a government that cynically touts family values as it disassembles family units by the millions with its criminal justice machinery. The government bleats over the recidivism rate as it simultaneously saddles ex-prisoners with diminished rights and the felony stigma. Even accepting the dubious premise that consensual activity can be rightfully labeled criminal, where is the wisdom in disenfranchising literally millions of people within their own nation?

Although this country was founded primarily upon alleged Christian principles, and the very essence of Christianity is forgiveness, what has developed within the last two decades of Republican rule is State-inspired vengeance run amok. There is simply no logic in locking a 17 year old girl away for 20 years for selling a half ounce of cocaine. Cocaine is merely cocaine, a psychoactive substance-it is not, as some politicians bray, weapons grade plutonium. There is no logic in the mass destruction of countless families over the unwinnable war on (some) drugs and policies with a 30 year old record of failure. Moreover, now that moral and fiscal realities have descended upon Russia, thus thrusting the US into being the world's leading penal colony which empire has proven the most evil? Which, ultimately is proving more "Christian" in the truest sense? What has happened in America to make the quality of mercy so ethereal?

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