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Underground Trojans Scholarship 2019 Winning Essay

From the concrete jungles of West Oakland to the agricultural breadbasket of the San Joaquin Valley, California is a state of extremes. Once a beacon of hope to Hmong refugees fleeing the aftermath of the Vietnam War, California was responsible for the deportation of nearly 8,000 immigrants in 2018. And in a state that boasts one of the highest percentages of registered Democrats, California voters have acquiesced time and again in the name of public safety by adopting legislation that only strengthened the Prison Industrial Complex, while doing little to reduce crime. According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) website, from 1980 to 2000 California added 21 new facilities and saw its inmate population increase 554%. To date, CDCR has an annual operating budget of 57 billion dollars and, with an inmate population of approximately 130,000 offenders, California has the third largest penal system in the world.

The pendulum, however, is beginning to swing in the opposite direction. Recent victories in the courts and at the polls have brought about changes in draconian sentencing laws as well as the eradication of isolation units. Yet despite these positive gains there are some who believe that unless all prisons are abolished entirely, any reform being done is only a temporary, surface solution irrespective of the fundamental core issues. Advocates of prison abolition call for the elimination of the prison system while replacing it with rehabilitation that is not focused on governmental institutionalization. Those in favor of prison reform, on the other hand, advance the idea of providing humane living conditions, greater access to legal counsel, education and programming opportunities. While at first glance these two causes appear to be yet another example of polarity in California, prison abolition and prison reform are actually two sides of the same coin. Not only can they coexist, they are complementary to one another in that their ideals overlap within the framework of the more recent concept of restorative justice.


The case for total elimination of institutionalized punishment is a noble one indeed. After all, a gilded cage is still a cage and even lenient sentencing laws contribute to over-criminalization and intervention by the state. Many abolitionists believe that the best form of justice arises naturally out of social contracts. Most supporters of this cause, however, promote alternative systems of punishment that reduce prisons to a smaller role in society. Similar to the prison abolition movement, proponents of prison reform agree that mass incarceration is not a viable long-term solution as a means of correcting errant behavior. On this point, at least, both sides may find common ground.


Restorative justice is a relatively new concept that encompasses many key components of the aforementioned movements. The ultimate goal of restorative justice is to fundamentally change the criminal justice system by removing the need for state intervention. This is to be accomplished by creating a dialogue between victims of crime, the offender, and the community in order to seek solutions that promote repair and reconciliation. Currently, when defendants are brought before the court, they are accused of committing crimes against the state. This denies the victim a sense of inclusion and identity. While criminal defendants actually have a myriad of rights at their disposal, victims of crime are rarely afforded the opportunity to participate in the process. By connecting all affected parties, a consensus may be established for how the offender can repair the harm incurred.


According to a 2007 study by the University of Pennsylvania, restorative justice had the highest rate of victim satisfaction and offender accountability when compared with more traditional methods. As an alternative to punishment through incarceration, restorative justice seeks to understand and address the circumstances that contribute to crime and allows offenders the opportunity to take responsibility for their actions. This is believed to prevent recidivism and further harm from being committed. Without a system in place to criminalize and punish behavior through incarceration, there will be little need for prisons in our society. This would satisfy the objectives of both the prison abolition and prison reform movements. Because of the social, fiscal, and moral challenges presented by mass incarceration, the benevolent crusades of abolition and reform were born. Instead of viewing each other as contending philosophies they, and the populations they profess to advocate for, would be better served by combining resources under the banner of restorative justice.

- Benny G.

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