Questions of Justice

Dr. Kaia Stern

“Close your eyes,” began Harvard Lecturer Kaia Stern, “and imagine a 16-year-old boy with a scar on his face who has been found guilty of murder in the second degree.” Before addressing the topics of “justice, punishment, and transformation” in evening chapel on April 13, Dr. Stern first wanted her Middlesex audience to think about another teenager – one serving a sentence of 25 to life because when he tried, unarmed, to rob a convenience store, the owner fired at him but killed a bystander. The scar on the teen’s face, she explained, was the result of cutting himself when he was forced to shave on entering prison.

“This is a powerful metaphor for our system of justice,” Dr. Stern reflected, “where people end up with wounds that are deeper than their physical scars.”

An ordained interfaith minister, Dr. Stern is a cofounder and director of the Prison Studies Project at Harvard. Focusing her work on transformative justice, dignity, and education in prison, she has taught at Sing Sing, Norfolk, and Framingham prisons as well as Emory University, New York Theological Seminary, and the University of California. Dr. Stern is also the executive director of Concord Prison Outreach, a volunteer, non-profit corporation that aims to reduce recidivism through developing and delivering educational and personal growth programs behind prison walls.

Describing the current “punishment crisis” in America today, Dr. Stern offered surprising statistics to illustrate the state of the country’s criminal justice system. “For most of the 20th century,” she noted, “only one in 1000 people was behind bars in this country.” Despite a relatively stable crime rate over the past 30 years, she added, “Now, that number is one in 31 Americans – and one in 24 in Massachusetts.”

Dr. Stern attributes this alarming trend to a number of factors, including the rising cost of bail, the lack of mental health treatment facilities, and the increase in nonviolent drug charges. Racial inequalities in who is policed, arrested, and prosecuted still persist, she stressed, tracing the problem back to early property laws governing America’s slaves.

“There is so much work to be done,” Dr. Stern responded when asked what can be done to improve the current situation. “It’s a protracted struggle that won’t be solved without intergenerational collaboration.”

Believing that “sitting in cells does not rehabilitate people,” she suggested that the U.S. reconsider practices such as plea bargaining and mandatory minimum sentences – and that we learn from alternative prison models in Scandinavia. “There are examples of better ways,” she stated, “and we need a major culture change here in the way we punish.”

Dr. Kaia Stern

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