Seminar examines California, Finland’s justice system

Julie Lifshay, health manager of Centerforce was one of
the several speakers at Friday’s seminar that focused on
punishment in Finland and California.
Stephen Keleher / The Collegian

Fifty years ago, the country of Finland and the state of California incarcerated their citizens at about the same rates. Since then, California’s prison population has grown five times larger, while Finland’s has been cut in half. On Friday, Mikko Aaltonen, a doctoral candidate at the University of Helsinki, Finland, and Fullbright scholar at the University of Pennsylvania Population Studies Center, came to the Alice Peters Auditorium to talk about the different ways crime and punishment are handled.

Sponsored by the College of Health and Human Services, Department of Social Work Education, the seminar was hosted by Dr. Kris Clarke, assistant professor. Experts from the Valley and the Bay Area also gave presentations and participated in the panel discussion afterwards.

The goal of the seminar was to answer the question: how do the “cultures of correction” in Finland and California handle lawbreakers, crime prevention and allow lawbreakers to make amends and return to society?

The increase in California’s prison population cost the state dearly and at least partly impacted state contributions to Fresno State, which has seen numerous tuition increases over the past several years.

“We spend more of our budget on prisons than any other state,” President John Welty said in 2009. At the beginning of this semester, while announcing more potential budget cuts and fee increases, he said “I think that it is a tragedy, when the amount our state invests in prisons exceeds the amount it invests in public higher education.”

“The costs are considered first in our system,” Aaltonen said. “The big difference is that crime is not a political issue that people use to get elected. And here crime is always brought up and discussed.”

“California spending for prisons is six times the rate of spending for higher education,” said Dr. Julie Lifshay, health manager of Centerforce, a nonprofit organization working just outside of San Quentin, in her opening statement.

In much of her presentation, Lifshay referred to, “The Caging of America,” a New Yorker article by Adam Gopnik.

“In the U.S., we try for a fair ‘process,’ we do not try for a ‘just’ outcome,” she said. “We have a revenge motif.”

The result has been “mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history. Overall, there are now more people under ‘correctional supervision’ in America—more than six million—than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height,” Adam Gopnik wrote in “Caging.”

Lifshay pointed to California’s Three Strikes law and a law letting the Governor override the parole board on releasing prisoners as potential reasons that the prison population has remained so high.

She displayed a graph showing the growth in the prison population and the corresponding growth in police and correctional staff from 1950 – 2009 in California and pointed out that the CCPOA (California Correctional Peace Officers Association) is the most well-funded, strongest lobby group in the state.

A film addressing efforts to help children of the incarcerated was shown, then Carol F. Burton, executive director of Centerforce, came to the lecture.

“Children and families play a significant role in [reducing] recidivism rates, but people are not aware of these facts,” Burton said.

She described programs that have been started to help incarcerated mothers integrate back into society and efforts that are being made to help fathers maintain contact with their children. Highlighting her point that re-entry programs lower recidivism and reduce prison costs, Burton said, “there are no programs at all in any of the prisons in the San Joaquin Valley or surrounding.”

Debbie Reyes of the California Prison Moratorium Project described the effects prisons built in rural areas of Fresno County and other counties in the Valley have inflicted on people living in those communities. Reyes referred to the recently-released report, “Environmental Vulnerabilities in California’s San Joaquin Valley,” by the Center for Regional Change at UC Davis, saying that the report considers prisons in rural communities to be a “toxic” industry.

“We believe the money being put into prisons should be used to create healthy communities. If we had healthy communities, healthy jobs, healthy education, we wouldn’t need to build this huge expansion project, which we see today with the prison conversions in Chowchilla, prison proposals in Madera, expansions in Delano,” said Reyes.

Reyes points out that in Wasco alone, there are 12 prisons.

“That community is suffering from one of the worst concentrations of asthma in the Central Valley, one of the worst poverty rates and also still, with 12 prisons that have been placed around within 30 miles, it has one of the highest unemployment rates.”

Lifshay said a contributor to this is people becoming desensitized to this environment and become attuned to the justice system.

“In the Bill of Rights it focuses on the issue of ‘process’ while other countries in Europe focus on justice and proportionality,” said Lifshay. “They want to have ‘just’ sentences and in the United States, apparently we want to have due process.”

Lifshay also brought about the idea of restorative justice, the theory of repairing harm caused by criminal behavior according to Restorative Justice Online.

“There are little groups in the United States that are able to operate in prisons around restorative justice, but it’s not a mentality that the U.S. prison system has in any way, and definitely not the California prison system,” Lifshay said.

Fresno State professor Dr. John Dussich said the concepts of restorative justice have already started within the Criminology Department and have used other countries as the foundation. Dussich said that restorative justice has caught on in several countries and Finland has been very progressive in corrections. He added is hopeful that restorative justice will catch on with the U.S. to fix the problem with the justice system.


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