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A different view of the justice system

Tuesday, June 16, 2015


News about a pair of escaped killers from a New York state prison and the subsequent manhunt exposes an unstated paradox about the value of prisons in our society.  The ensuing fear among the local populace begs an important question.

Which one thing is more crucial, a prison's recidivism rate or its escape rate?  Given media publicity and people’s reaction, it seems escape rate would garner more votes.  Recidivism however is the standard.

It’s time to admit that recidivism is a flawed success measure.  It tells us very little other than the fact that a person hasn’t returned to prison.  Is it because they reformed or didn’t get caught?  We know that a person can avoid incarceration for a variety of reasons, including witness intimidation, while continuing to victimize.

Measuring recidivism results from an unrealistic mission thrust upon prisons by a group of religious zealots more than two hundred years ago.  In 1790, American Quakers in Philadelphia established a new type of prison.  The Walnut Street Jail reformed the way punishment was administered in our country.  Inmates were to be rehabilitated through penance (hence the term penitentiary), and abstinence from alcohol.  The Bible was the only reading material allowed.

A mission, developed more than two hundred years ago to redeem drunkards and social misfits, remains to this day.  Churches are not held responsible if they don’t turn sinners into saints.  Hospitals are not held responsible if they fail to cure someone of cancer or severe bodily trauma.  Prisons however are condemned for not turning criminals into responsible citizens.

It seems we ask too much of prisons.  We ask them to succeed where other social institutions have failed.  We ask them to make people accept social norms they’ve rejected and ridiculed.  An institution with an outdated mission and judged by invalid measures will always be proclaimed a failure.

We instinctively know the value of prisons.  People who are securely confined don’t prey on our communities. Reducing victimization should trump reducing recidivism.

After the Attica Prison uprising of 1971, the National Institute of Corrections (NIC) was created and ushered in a new era of reform.  The success has been phenomenal.  Thanks to new architectural designs, better staff training, classification systems, and management methods promoted by the NIC, prisons have become much more peaceful in the past 30 years.  Between 1980 and 2003 the state prison homicide rate dropped from 54.0 per 100,000 inmates to an astounding 5.7 per 100,000.   This occurred despite an inmate population explosion.

The direct supervision model of institution design and management, promoted by NIC, focuses on managing the environment and can be viewed as a microcosm of community-oriented policing in prison and jail.  Officers are in constant and direct contact with inmates and get to know them so they can respond to trouble before it escalates into violence.  Negotiation and communication become more important staff skills than brute force.

It seems that prison reformers should rejoice at such good news but they persist as if nothing’s changed since 1971.  Prisons must be managed humanely, and constitutionally, plus provide education, vocational training and other treatment options, including community transition.  However they should not be held responsible if a people return to crime after their release.  Personal behavior is linked to personal responsibility.  

We should realize that incarceration is our least used option.  The vast majority of our corrections population (more than 80% in some states) is under community supervision rather than locked up.  Contrary to what we’re often told, we spend ten times more on education and on public welfare than on prisons. 

We’re also told that prisons hold scores of non-violent, low level offenders.  A person’s current offense doesn’t paint a complete picture of criminal history, circumstances of the crime, or plea-bargaining.  Al Capone’s only major conviction was for tax evasion and he had a history of illegal booze violations.

Reformers want to be “smart on crime” but they demand that the system do what it already does.  The vast majority of offenders are under community supervision.  We spend a lot more on education and social welfare than on prisons and those that are locked up are generally the ones that should be.

It’s time to realize that the criminal justice system shouldn’t be a gatekeeper for prisons.  It should confront and prevent crime.  Workable strategies should be developed in concert with citizens, social services, faith groups and others at the neighborhood level.  This bottom up approach is better than the current top down approach of legislative and court action favored by reformers.

We need justice reform but we won’t succeed by focusing on the wrong problems and proposing flawed solutions.  The criminal justice system should be evaluated by its ability to protect the community rather than on its success at redeeming souls.

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