There’s a surprising consensus spreading across the political spectrum regarding criminal justice reform. From Rand Paul to Bernie Sanders, the Koch brothers to the Quakers, everyone has joined the chorus in a syncopated refrain demanding a solution to a “broken system.”
This is both a reason to cheer and to ponder. Like all previous reform efforts this latest attempt is focused on the wrong problem and calls for inappropriate solutions. The public wants to improve the system but justice reform has never been a critical issue for voters. That’s because of a divide between what politicians are promoting and the demands of the public.
People in general are more concerned with crime control and reduction than with criminal justice system reform. That’s not to say they don’t want a more humane, and just system, they just don’t believe that the focus of reform efforts is in tune with their own interests. Politically driven justice reform focuses on reducing incarceration. The public demands public safety.
Experts from academia, social services, as well as the public and private sectors, provide legislators with answers to what’s described as “mass incarceration”. Bad policy however isn’t the result of not knowing the answers. It’s the result of not asking the right questions. Not asking crucial questions targets the wrong problems. Subsequent solutions only succeed in requiring more remedies in the future and it further alienates the public.
Reform activists also don’t seem to be aware of two important facts that render their methods unwarranted. They demand that the system do what it already does and has done for decades. They also seem to be unaware that for more than twenty years the justice system has been changing itself from within. This ongoing “quiet revolution” goes beyond the scope of reformation to transformation.
Traditional reform efforts are initiated and directed from outside the system. Selling the idea of less incarceration to a seemingly indifferent public requires a negative portrayal of prisons and incarceration in general. The narrative describes a justice system that incarcerates too many in terms of numbers and necessity. Prisons are too costly and drain not only our economy but deprive money to our schools and other more vital initiatives. To our shame we have the highest incarceration rate in the world because we lack or don’t make use of other options.
Reality paints a different picture. Despite our high incarceration numbers and contrary to statements that we don’t make use of alternatives, the vast majority of our corrections population (more than eighty percent in some states) is under community supervision rather than locked up. States spend about $50 billion yearly on corrections and about $600 billion on education.
Statistics only give a snapshot of a person’s current offense. They don’t describe criminal histories, crime circumstances, or plea-bargaining. By asking crucial questions we can avert disasters as when corrections departments are ordered through legislation or the courts to release all “non-violent offenders” who “shouldn’t be locked up”.
So what exactly is wrong with our criminal justice system and what needs to be done? The premise of the system has always been offender-focused and is supposed to do things to or for them after they commit a crime. This means that punishment and rehabilitation are two sides of the same coin and operating policies and procedures depend in large part on the political coin toss. The justice system is also not so much a system as it is a group of individual components each with its own mission, values and priorities. It works to process cases rather than to solve problems.
The reason we need an effective crime policy is because of the system’s steadfast focus on offenders. We strive to make the system either meaner and harsher or kinder and gentler on law violators and crime victims are all but ignored. We fool ourselves into thinking we’re addressing crime when we’re actually trying to determine the best means of responding to individual criminal behavior. The labels “tough on crime” and “smart on crime” actually have nothing to do with crime at all. They merely dictate reactive responses after someone violates the law.
The encouraging news is that despite claims of needing to fix a broken system, something appears to be working. For more than twenty years we’ve experienced a remarkable drop in crime. The timeline corresponds with the conception and growth of a new justice system. What makes the new criminal justice revolutionary is that it’s a “ground up” rather than the “bottom down” approach to change. The changes weren’t because of more laws passed through legislation but because the justice system and citizens joined forces in partnerships to develop new strategies and operating practices.
It began with community policing when increasing crime, disorder and rapid deterioration in our cities forced citizens and business owners to work with police to develop problem-solving practices at the neighborhood level. They began by changing the question and ultimately the mission and goal of their efforts. Rather than asking how many more or fewer people to put in prison, they simply asked how they could create and maintain safer communities.
These practices have spread throughout the other system components. Community courts, community prosecution, and community probation/parole work with citizens, schools, faith groups and social services. They combat juvenile delinquency, domestic violence, drug addiction, gang and gun violence and other issues.
Even prisons and jails have transformed themselves. The direct supervision model, which was in its infancy in the 1980’s, has now spread throughout the country. Direct supervision is a microcosm of community policing in prisons and jails. 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.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) between 1980 and 2002 the state prison homicide rate dropped from 54.0 per 100,000 inmates to an astounding 5.7 per 100,000. Better architectural design of facilities has also made Attica type uprisings virtually a thing of the past.
It seems reformers should rejoice at such good news but instead they portray prisons and jails as if nothing’s changed in the past forty years.
Perhaps the greatest irony is that the latest calls for racial justice come when police departments in the inner cities have begun to work with and for their communities. Black police chiefs working for Black mayors and working in partnership with the Black residents in these communities head many of these police departments.
The people who need protection from those who terrorize them because they can’t afford to live anywhere else but in the poorest crime-infested neighborhoods are now marginalized by a sense of misplaced compassion for their victimizers. It’s easy to advocate for thugs when you don’t live among them.
Giving citizens and victims a sense of ownership of their justice system is the way to erase the existing harmful divisions and mistrust. Citizens must be trusted to craft policy together with the justice system including the courts. This is already being demonstrated in neighborhoods from Brooklyn NY to Portland OR. Partnerships of citizens, faith groups, social services, businesses, and others working with the justice system have transformed crime-infested areas into safer, more livable locations.
This transformation must not be hindered because of harmful and divisive rhetoric. We can only hope that politicians finally hear and heed the calls of the populace as they work to transform the system.