Fifty years ago, on Aug. 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood at the Lincoln Memorial and shared his dream that one day a people long denied their rights would become full citizens of our nation. His dream was born of the nightmare of segregation, Jim Crow, and racial prejudice. For many, that nightmare continues to this day. But King refused to wallow in the valley of despair. Nor can we. He had a dream.
Today we need a dream that counters the nightmare of punishment that threatens to destroy the very foundation of our freedom and the promise of equality. This nightmare is a menace to us all, whatever our race and wherever we live.
The United States incarcerates more persons per capita than any other nation in the world. Currently there are more than 2.2 million people in jails and prisons, many of them young and many at the beginning of a downward spiral into a life without hope. Our schools have spawned a pipeline to incarceration by routine suspensions and expulsions. Our nation’s current rush to punishment has resulted in wasted lives, failure to assist victims, and unrestrained financial costs without making our communities safer. We dare not continue on this path.
There is broad recognition among those in law enforcement, the legal profession, judiciary, corrections and education that current approaches to crime and wrongdoing that rely primarily upon punishment fail to rehabilitate the offender and result in a revolving door. The cost in human lives and in wasted dollars is tragic.
The course we are on is a nightmare — a nightmare that has given rise to a dream for the healing of broken lives and shattered communities.
I have a dream that one day everyone will be treated with dignity and respect, and even those who fall and harm others will be given a second chance to take responsibility for their actions, make restitution to those whom they have harmed, seek rehabilitation and become productive citizens.
I have a dream that the needs of victims will become a crucial concern of our justice system and that the resources needed for their support and healing will be made available to them.
I have a dream that we will allocate more resources to crime prevention than to retribution and that our return on investment will not be measured in short-term dollars but in the long-term reweaving of our frayed social fabric.
I have a dream that our schools will be caring communities in which every child is immersed in restorative practices spawning graduates who sow seeds of peace, promote justice and seek reconciliation.
I have a dream that our prisons and jails will no longer serve as society’s primary mental health and substance abuse facilities, but will be reserved for those few who are truly a danger to society or themselves. Those who are incarcerated will be provided with a full range of rehabilitative resources to reduce the chances of recidivism.
I have a dream — a dream that across our state and nation, citizens, professionals and politicians will join together to transform our culture of punishment into one of prevention, healing and restoration.
The Rev. T. Richard Snyder of Camden is chair of the board of the Restorative Justice Institute of Maine, founder and a board member of the Restorative Justice Project of the Midcoast and professor emeritus and former academic dean of New York Theological Seminary. He recently served for two years as academic dean of Bangor Theological Seminary. He is the author of “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Punishment.”