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Good sense


 From Bob Ramsey, Drug Policy Forum of Texas

Nora tells me many readers have mailed in stacks of clippings with the letter I wrote that published in USA Today in January. (See U.S. drug laws harmful, need thorough reform) "Do you know this guy?" you asked her. Yes, she does.

In this letter, I wanted to write something that would make the public relate personally to the damage Americans are inflicting on ourselves with mass incarceration. Because TNC staff can't respond to everyone and still move ahead in their vital work, Nora invited me to write you all and tell you about myself and where I am coming from on the issues of drug policy reform.

I spend some time reading the Bible, and whether or not you believe it is the Word of God, I hope you can accept the notion that it contains good sense.

Deuteronomy is the fifth book in the Bible and the last of the books by Moses. Much of its content is law that deals with everyday life. The first three verses of chapter 25 are a good vehicle to discuss our country's current penchant for harsh punishment. The U.S. is violating the spirit of Biblical law in important ways.

Here is the King James translation:

  • 1. If there be a controversy between men, and they come unto judgment, that the judges may judge them, then they shall justify the righteous, and condemn the wicked.
  • 2. And it shall be, if the wicked man be worthy to be beaten, that the judge shall cause him to lie down, and to be beaten before his face, according to his fault, by a certain number.
  • 3. Forty stripes he may give him, and not exceed: lest, if he should exceed, and beat him above these with many stripes, then thy brother should seem vile unto thee.

Verse 1 describes the reason for going before a judge in the first place. There must be a complainant who desires judicial intervention to settle a dispute peacefully. It never occurred to Moses to hire agents who would stir up disputes.

Verse 2 commands that the one who decrees the punishment must watch it "before his face." The great tragedy of punishment these days is that we inflict ever-longer sentences, but no one ever witnesses the result. If the punishment is supposed to deter others from crime, this effect is surely lost when the convicted ones disappear into far-off prisons.

But far greater harm is done because the public loses touch with how much punishment is enough. When people see what they are doing to their fellow Man, they cannot help but identify with those punished and at some level of pain their conscience will rebel.

Verse 3 sets a limit for punishment. It is true we don't use this particular form of punishment these days. But regardless of how we punish, this important truth remains: if you punish too much, your brother will seem vile to you. Another translation puts it "your brother will be degraded in your eyes."

We must get back in touch with these two truths: the offender is still your brother, and the vileness or degradation is in our eyes, not his eyes or God's eye. Punishing too much separates us from the offenders' humanity. Once we see 'them' as subhuman, we lose all sense of proportion in punishment. At that point we could execute 'them' for stealing a crust of bread and feel righteous about doing it.

There are many valid approaches to convincing the public that we need to end this war on ourselves. As I see it, our politicians are weathervanes who will always scramble toward the 'moral high ground'. The reformers' job is to redefine the moral high ground. Words like 'compassion', 'tolerance', and 'freedom' used to flow proudly from politicians' lips. We need to make them fashionable again.

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