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November 19, 2010

"It's 'give back' time: Locally grown foods and criminal sentences"

The title of this post is the headline of this interesting op-ed in today's Chicago Tribune authored by Professors Lynn Branham and Bruce Branham.  As the title hints, the piece has a creative proposal for an alternative sentencing program. Here are excerpts:

A few months ago, the two of us were, once again, victims of crime — burglary and theft. We felt what so many crime victims feel. Invaded. Vulnerable. Angry.

What we soon discovered, though, was that there were limits — rational limits — to our anger toward those who had victimized us. When we asked each other whether we wanted these people sent to jail or perhaps even prison if they were caught and convicted, the answer, to our surprise, was no. We wanted something more.

What we really wanted was not to "get back" at the perpetrators of the crimes. What we wanted was for them to "give back" for the harm their crimes had caused.

That harm, we recognized, went far beyond us. Those who commit crimes also fracture neighborhoods and communities, instilling all of us with resentment, fear and distrust.

So if we were to craft a penalty for the malefactors who stole from us, what would it entail? Work. Hard work. Productive work. Work that makes amends for their crimes by helping others.

Which brings us to what many consider the "wastelands" in Chicago. You know. The places rived by crime and poverty. The places from which a disproportionate percentage of the inmates in the local jail and the state's prisons hail. The places where hope can seem mythical.

What people may not know about these areas of the city is how difficult, and sometimes impossible, it is for people living in them to obtain fresh or homegrown foods. There is, it is true, a burgeoning movement in this country to make locally grown foods readily available. The goals are to make our meals tastier, our health improved and our waistlines, hopefully, smaller.

But the local foods movement has largely missed the poor and decimated parts of urban cities.  One of us, a horticulturist, witnessed this gap while working with a ministry in Chicago that wants to grow and distribute fresh produce to the poor.  During that endeavor, it became apparent to both of us that a structure needs to be put in place to facilitate the growing, preserving, distribution and preparation of healthy foods in poor neighborhoods of Chicago.

That structure can come from what many might consider the most unlikely of sources — the criminal justice system.  Prisons and jails in this state are overflowing with inmates whiling away their time, at enormous expense to taxpayers.  Many of these criminals can be enlisted in making locally grown foods readily accessible to the poor.  Tilling, planting, weeding, harvesting and distributing fresh produce, as well as preserving some of it, takes a lot of time. And that is something that inmates have an abundant supply of.

The local foods work crews laboring to help the poor, however, would not be composed solely of incarcerated individuals.  In fact, developing a structure to provide judges the option of imposing this kind of "work sentence" would obviate the need or perceived need to incarcerate many of those who now wind up in prison or jail.  These exorbitantly expensive incarceration resources could then be conserved for the violent and incorrigible offenders for whom incarceration is the only viable sentencing alternative.

November 19, 2010 at 12:59 PM | Permalink


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Everyone has a business plan. How can my concept get a piece of the incarceration pie? This is pretty inventive. The local homegrown food movement is working very hard to find a way to be subsidized so that they will have a competitive product, and it has been difficult. Big Ag is a formidable opponent.

A nice consulting business with a contract to develop urban gardens and farmers markets would be ideal - obviously the money could come from the prison industrial complex - it is falling out of favor.

Opposition of course is built in if you are to follow the money. Big Ag needs to protect the farm bill. Public employees unions representing the prison industrial complex may see a threat. Farm workers would then have to compete with free and or subsidized labor. The beat goes on.

Posted by: beth | Nov 20, 2010 1:01:54 PM

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