ORLEANS – That the problem of mass incarceration is alarming is seen not only in the statistics but in the strong and passionate commitments of those aware of and concerned about over-incarceration in America today. Many know there is a problem, but how it came to exist and how to address it are often less clear. The Honorable Donald L. Cabell, the guest speaker at this year’s Martin Luther King Day Breakfast at the Church of the Holy Spirit, faced the formidable task of describing the scope of the problem, explaining its origin and suggesting what needs to happen in response.
The event is sponsored each year by the Martin Luther King Action Team, one of four Nauset Interfaith Association Action Teams. According to its convener the Rev. Ken Campbell, the NIA “sponsors several events each year,” including the ecumenical Thanksgiving and Good Friday Services, and “works with other community organizations such as Sustainable Practices.” Its MLK Action Team focuses on education regarding the nature of institutional, cultural and individual racism, while the other action teams address issues related to at risk and homeless teens and young adults, refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants, and the need for transitional housing.
This year’s breakfast opened with music performed by the Nauset Regional Middle School Concert Band under the direction of Megan Anthony, and by singer and instrumentalist Bruce Abbott accompanied by pianist Fred Boyle. Following welcoming comments by Campbell, Monomoy Regional High School students Olivia Appleton and Libby Anderson read poems they wrote for the occasion. Appleton’s title was “In the 1950s and '60s” and Anderson’s was called “I Have a Dream in 2020.”
The Olive Branch Peace Award, established in the 1980s by the Cape Cod Chapter of the Fellowship of Reconciliation to honor and give thanks to an individual living on Cape Cod with a deep personal commitment to working toward securing justice for all by peaceful means, was presented to Lisa Brown, longtime teacher of special education and living and applied arts at Nauset Regional High School.
Guest speaker Cabell has been a magistrate judge for the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts since 2014. Born in Michigan, Cabell grew up in Bourne and graduated from Bourne High School. He received his BA degree in political science from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (later serving as admissions dean).
Cabell worked as a discrimination investigator with the Boston’s Fair Housing Commission. After receiving his law degree from Northeastern University in 1991, he worked in private practice at law firms in Boston before joining the Department of Justice in 1995 as a federal prosecutor in the Boston U.S. Attorney’s Office. In that capacity he prosecuted felony offenses concentrating on national security and terrorism matters. In 2012, he was selected to serve as the Department of Justice’s legal attaché at the American Embassy in Paris where he was responsible for representing the interests of the Department’s criminal division in both France and Monaco.
Prior to the breakfast members of the NIA were given copies of excerpts from “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2019,” published by The Prison Policy Initiative. The document contained information on current prison populations, the types of offenses that tend to lead to incarcerations, racial and economic factors, and the need for significant legal and penal reform.
In remarks which at times where humorous and included personal anecdotes, Cabell offered his audience current statistics regarding incarceration levels, background on how the nation reached this point, and the steps that may be required to address this trend. Along the way he shared his belief in “restorative justice” as society’s appropriate goal for its legal and penal systems.
“How bad is it?” Cabell asked. As the “freest country in the world,” the United States is the world’s leader in incarcerating is citizens. At “655 people per every 100,000 population, we have the highest rate in the free world, with most (47 percent) federal incarcerations result from drug offenses and most (55 percent) state incarcerations due to violent crimes.” Incarcerations include persons being held in custody prior to and following their trials as well as persons on parole and probation. It does not include persons held by reason of their immigration status. Levels of incarceration for people of color and women are proportionally higher than for white men. Despite a decline in violent crime, the length of incarcerations has increased, as have the costs.
“How did we get where we are today?” Cabell asked, and replied to his own question: “Not due to more crime. In fact, crime rates have declined as incarceration rates have increased.”
Factors that have contributed are the “War on Drugs,” which criminalized even non-violent drug crimes without actually reducing the problem of drug use, according to Cabell. Other factors were stronger punishments for many crimes; mandatory sentencing; the privatization of the prison system; a tendency by prosecutors to depersonalize and dehumanize those accused of crimes; and societal expectations that those who commit crimes will be removed from their communities. Cabell also believes that an unconscious bias and prejudice against people who are accused of committing crimes, i.e. that they deserve incarceration, affects their attitude toward the issue of mass incarceration.
“What can we do?” he asked. “Mass incarceration is not due to one factor nor does it effect only one group. It is a racial, societal, familial, economic, moral, spiritual, national, and American problem.
“What is needed is a change of attitude, and churches and other religious communities could held make that happen,” Cabell said. “There are 300,000 religious institutions in America, and 900,000 persons who have been released from incarceration. What if each of those communities adopted three released men or women and helped them transition back into society?”
Cabell believes restorative justice begins with a change in the way we view persons who are incarcerated. Courts have a role in the “re-entry process” following the release of persons from incarceration, and Cabell has found that that role’s effectiveness can depend on the attitude of the judge and other officials involved.
“We need to learn how to look beyond the categories and classifications we apply to people when they are released and see that we are all complex creatures with great potential,” Cabell said. His experience with the re-entry program administered by his court has taught him the value of “crediting participants with the same hope for life and of viewing these persons as full member the community.”