2019-20 Annual Theme
It is easy to draw Americans into a conversation about "being human" when we focus on love, families, old age, grief, even poverty or educational opportunities. It is especially easy when we aim our support at those people we deem worthy of the label human. It is much more difficult to discuss, much less acknowledge, the humanity of people who have broken the law. Frequently, we fail to grant them the same human emotions and trouble that we, who are not incarcerated, experience. We live in a country of punitive vengeance more than a country of restorative healing and rehabilitation.
However, in the 21st century, Americans are experiencing a shift in the way they think about justice. There is widespread call for the legalization of marijuana—both recreational and medicinal—when before we had imposed mandatory minimum sentences for possession, largely against people of color, whose neighborhoods are much more heavily policed than white neighborhoods. Since 2010, five states have abolished the death penalty, and three other states have entered a governor-imposed moratorium. Nineteen of the thirty states that still sanction the death penalty haven't carried out an execution in at least five years. In the recent mid-term election, Florida, a heavily GOP-controlled state, restored the voting rights for nearly 1.5 million Floridians who had completed felony sentences—about 9.2 percent of the state's voting-age population.
In the biggest shift yet in criminal justice reform, the Senate, in a recent vote of 87-12, approved the First Step Act, and the House followed suit with a vote of 358-36. One day later, Trump signed the bill into law, and subsequently, across the country, states must reduce many of their mandatory minimum sentences and expand on "good time credits" for well-behaved prisoners. Additionally, the Department of Justice must now establish better risk- and needs-assessment protocols for classifying inmates as they enter our penal institutions. How can we more safely—and with more successful outcomes—house, group, and assign programs to incarcerated Americans?
An increasingly bipartisan issue, criminal justice reform is a frequently misunderstood topic; people think they understand it, but usually what they believe frightens them. Changes in the way we think about "criminals" happens largely because of the Humanities—through art, storytelling, music, film, journalism, and psychiatric developments in the way we treat mental illness and substance abuse. We can begin to engage community members who either never attended college or have long since graduated—and frequently look upon universities with suspicion.
JUSTICE may easily be the only bipartisan issue in the current decade; addressing it is one way that the TTU Humanities Center can build a bridge between the divided sides in this country, between those working in education and those who consider the academy an insular, troublesome enemy.