Reforming the Justice System

“Justice” is one of those buzz words used by both the left and the right when discussing reform of the prison system.  The left uses it to talk about the rights of the accused and those who depend on him or her; the right invokes it when talking about the rights of victims, communities and society at large.  Since most of us fall into one of these latter groups, the conservative argument usually wins the day.  Fear almost always trumps other emotions.

The rationale for incarceration seems to be some combination of Punishment, Retribution, Protection, and Rehabilitation, in that order.  We punish the perpetrator for their crime, exact a measure of revenge for the harm they have done to society, and protect the members of the community that have been victims – or could be in the future.  Right now, our system goes through the following sentencing logic:

  1. Determine what level of punishment can/should be imposed on the person
  2. Adjust it based on how the crime is perceived by the victims and society at large
  3. Decide how to best protect the health and safety of the community
  4. And, given the above, agree on what effort should be expended to rehabilitate the person

This approach places much of the responsibility for rehabilitation on the shoulders of the penal system.  Factors such as cost, human resources, time, and facilities available serve to define, and in most cases limit, the amount of effort we expend towards making sure the criminal does not re-offend.  Under the above process we spend first on prisons and oversight of criminals (est. $68.7B), second on police and DHS protection (est. $62.4B), third on restitution (est. $4B), and last on rehabilitation (est. $3.44B).  Since corrections budgeting is at best a zero sum game, the more people we incarcerate, the fewer dollars we have to invest in rehabilitation.

The second challenge with rehabilitation is that society demands a near perfect track record.  Unless officials can guarantee that a criminal is reformed and will not re-offend, rehabilitation doesn’t get the support it needs to be effective.  And without public support, it cannot possibly reform all the individuals that are likely to be successful in a program.

It’s not that we don’t know how to rehabilitate some criminals.  People who are first time offenders; who commit crimes of passion, desperation or unfortunate circumstance; who can find meaningful work and a good place to live; and who have supportive communities are generally excellent candidates.

To be successful we have to dedicate ourselves to identifying these individuals at sentencing, incarcerate them away from hardened criminals, and make sure they get the training and support they need to re-enter society.

This means that we have to re-order our priorities when meting out justice.  Instead of punishment as the chief arbiter, we should place rehabilitation at the top of the list:

  1. Does this person have a reasonable chance at rehabilitation?
  2. If yes, and this person is rehabilitated, will the community be safe?
  3. If yes to both the above, does society benefit by rehabilitating this person?
  4. Given the answers to the above three questions, what punishment should we impose?

I realize this approach may provoke outrage in some.  But a careful examination of the priorities shows that the system will still put the most violent and likely to re-offend criminals behind bars.  In fact, this approach puts those criminals who are most dangerous in prison for potentially longer sentences than those imposed by the current system of sentencing guidelines.

What it does is lower costs by reducing the prisoner population, maximizes the number of productive citizens that are contributing to their communities, and minimizes the rates of recidivism.  This in turn, reduces our need for protective services like police, cuts our insurance rates, lessens the costs to victims of crime, and increases our tax revenues.

Whatever your position on justice, we must all admit that the current system isn’t working.  We have the largest prison population of any developed nation, and we spend less per capita on rehabilitation.  It’s time to try a new approach; one that works harder to make law-abiding and productive citizens out of our offenders.