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A different view of the justice system

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Right on Crime is Wrong

In 2010 several conservatives formed a group called Right on Crime.  It includes conservative luminaries such as Newt Gingrich and William Bennett.  A major tenet of their purpose is the belief that our current criminal justice system needs reform because of our over reliance on incarceration.  They propose more "cost effective" methods of various alternatives to incarceration.  This, they say,  is in keeping with conservative principles of limited government and fiscal responsibility. 

With current federal and state budgets stretched beyond capacity this sounds like a reasonable proposal.  Liberals have been denouncing our criminal justice system for the same reasons stating that as a nation we're too punitive in our response to crime.  Now it seems that many conservatives have been co-opted and herded aboard the anti-incarceration bandwagon.

The proposition of improving our criminal justice system primarily through prison reform is wrong for a number of reasons.  Most important of these is the fact that the premise for reform is faulty.  Our criminal justice system DOES NOT rely too much on incarceration.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) at the end of 2009 our country had 7,225,800 individuals under correctional supervision.  Of this number 2,284,913 were in prison or jail while 5,023,275 were on community supervision (also called community corrections).  This means that about 70% of our correctional population is on some type of "alternative" sentence rather that in prison or jail.  Probation alone with 4,203,967 individuals under supervision makes up the major portion of the community corrections population.  One could say that in this country incarceration is an alternative sentence.If the goal of  Right on Crime and other likeminded organizations is to shift the number of people in prison into alternative community supervision programs; Mission accomplished!   Fixing our criminal justice system will require more than merely reshuffling bodies or altering sentencing.

Probation is the most crowded and potentially dangerous segment of corrections.  Probation officers struggle with caseloads of 200 and more.  Many cases are banked meaning they receive little to no supervision.  Unsupervised probation coasts practically nothing but is of little value in terms of public safety.  Providing the needed services and enhanced supervision to these cases will increase, not decrease, costs.  

A major problem with our current system is its focus on individual criminal behavior rather than on crime. It is constantly struggling with what to do to or for offenders after they commit a crime. The system is never asked to confront crime. It is tasked with processing cases. This is what must change. Instead of a criminal justice system focused on things to do to or for criminals, we should have a true public safety model of justice that’s focused on crime prevention and reduction as well as creating and maintaining safer communities.

We’re told that prisons hold a large number of non-violent offenders. This raises several questions. Should we only incarcerate violent offenders? What about car thieves, burglars, drug dealers, swindlers and others? Should we never incarcerate these types of criminals? What exactly is a non-violent offender? Is it someone who has never committed a violent crime? Is it someone convicted of a non-violent crime but with a history of violence? Is it someone who committed a violent crime but was convicted of a non-violent crime because of plea bargaining? The point is that sentencing statistics provide only a snapshot of the person’s current offense.

The current system also relies on a flawed success measure-recidivism. This also raises several questions. If a person hasn’t returned to prison, is it because they’ve reformed or is it because they haven’t gotten caught? Perhaps an individual was rearrested in another jurisdiction but as long as he/she doesn’t return to the institution of release it’s counted as a success. Reliance on recidivism creates unintended consequences. Probation and parole officers are often instructed not to revoke supervision unless (until) a person commits a “serious” offense. Many major offenses can be prevented by revoking individuals at the first sign of trouble-usually after a “minor” infraction. To do so would be considered a failure in today’s system. Does this make any sense? Offenders can avoid rearrest and conviction while continuing to wreak havoc in the community.

A system focused on community safety would strive to reduce victimization rather than recidivism. It would consider victim’s rights and crime prevention as crucial to success. It would consider incarceration as neither good nor bad, in and of itself, but as merely one component in its efforts to confront crime.

The reason the system needs to change is not that it’s too harsh or too lenient. The purpose of change should not be to become meaner and harsher or kinder and gentler on what’s done to or for offenders. We currently have a criminal justice system focused on the needs of the individual criminal regarding punishment, rehabilitation, etc. What we don’t have is a justice system that represents the interests of communities and crime victims. We don’t have a system that confronts crime rather than responds to individual criminal acts and criminal behavior. That is why the system must change.  If increasing the cost of the system enhances its value to the taxpayers so much the better.