A couple months ago I had the opportunity to visit California’s maximum-security state prison, San Quentin. I was going to participate in a couple violence-prevention classes held by the Insight Prison Project for prisoners with life sentences. I suppose I experienced the regular kind of adrenaline-rush of a young woman going into a compound with California’s 4000 supposedly most dangerous men. But I found it was not the prisoners that scared me. It was the numerous heavy metal gates, the barbed wire everywhere, the armed guards, the snipers up in the watchtowers and, I’ll never forget that, the row of 4 or 5 completely exposed toilets right on the yard, that scared me. Talk about humiliation. Every inch of my body filled itself with desperate hopelessness and injustice I could do absolutely nothing about. I can’t change the laws, the judicial system, the bullying guards within the prison or public perception of the men within these walls. But I can tell the story of who I met in there and what I believe needs to change. De Tocqueville once said “harshness is an acknowledgement of the sovereign’s weakness; leniency is a sign of its strength.” If that is true, America has a long way to go.

For every 100.000 people in the United States, 743 are incarcerated. The next runner up in the world is Russia with 577. France ranks at number 144 with 96 prisoners for every 100.000 citizens.  US state and federal spending on the criminal justice system exploded dramatically with $6.9 billion spent in 1980 to $57 billion in 2001. Though these statistics are in itself disturbing, what is more staggering is that even with all this money going in and all these people in jail, US crime rates do not drop. Tougher sentences clearly do not have the expected outcome. This is nothing new; in fact, Ronald Reagan during his presidency had already come to the same conclusion. So where do we go from here?

Here I’ll discuss the role of forgiveness in the American criminal justice system. I’ll describe the current status of criminal justice and procedure, then analyze why it fails at almost every tasks it sets out to accomplish and finally propose the key missing ingredient in our judicial structure: forgiveness and rehabilitation.


by Majlie de Puy Kamp

Majlie de Puy Kamp comes from the Netherlands and is close to completing her Masters of Disoute Resolution at the Straus Institute.