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A different view of the justice system

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Getting To The Heart Of Improving The Criminal Justice System

The main thing wrong with calls to reform our criminal justice system is the false assumptions about the core problem.  This leads to recommending the wrong solutions and it perpetuates the need for future reforms.   Mistaken assumptions often impede progress.  Criminal justice reform isn't unique in assuming a mistaken view of the challenge before it.

Science gives us some of the best examples.  At some point in time, scientists came to accept the fact that light was a wave.  They subsequently spent decades chasing after the "ether" (luminiferous ether),  the hypothetical stuff through which light propagates. It stood to reason that as sound waves are disturbances in air and water waves are disturbances in water, light waves must be a disturbance in something. 

Up until the first part of the twentieth century, there was scientific consensus about the existence of this mysterious ether.  The word "consensus" is even now unfittingly applied to certain scientific fields but that's another discussion.  It took Einstein's theory of special relativity to make clear that the ether wasn't just illusive.  It didn't exist.

Mistaken assumptions are based on personal bias or refusing to look beyond the obvious.  Personal biases can also prevent looking at the bigger picture.  The criminal justice reform efforts of the past thirty years is a case in point.  The reform narrative assumes that the main problem with the system is it's punitiveness based on "mass incarceration."  

It's actually easy to see why this narrative has so much staying power.  Our prison population ballooned from about two hundred thousand in 1975 to about two million in 2005.  A "correctional crisis" was declared because of prison overcrowding and run away spending on prisons.  Just about everyone knows that the US has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

People from academia, private foundations, non profit organizations, and even from within the criminal justice system itself have established successful careers promoting this narrative.  They're considered to be experts in criminal justice and have the attention of policymakers at the national and state levels.  Many of them have personal biases against prisons and incarceration.  This too is easy to understand. It seems hard to reconcile the notion of prisons in the land of the free.

Our criminal justice system does need to improve.  It's essential however that we focus on the right problems in order to craft workable solutions.  We've all heard the quote misattributed to Einstein that defines insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.  The reform narrative adds another dimension to this definition.  Reformers keep demanding that the system do what it's already doing and has been doing for decades.

They demand that we make greater use of or start using alternatives to incarceration in order to divert more people away from overcrowded prisons.   In order to drive home the point, many of them tell us that we're spending more on prisons than on schools and we should switch things around.

The fact is that we already have more than eighty per cent, in some states, of our corrections population under community supervision (alternatives) rather than locked up.  The national average is more than two thirds of our corrections population under community supervision.  Probation alone constitutes the biggest component of the community supervision (community corrections) population.  We have about one and one half million people locked up and about four million on probation.  Add to that last number people on parole, halfway houses, and other community programs and it becomes clear that in this country incarceration is an alternative sentence.

Community corrections is the invisible giant of the corrections field and it has the greatest amount of "overcrowding."  Probation officers struggle with huge case loads of hundreds which makes effective supervision next to impossible. As far as spending, we spend about sixty billion annually on corrections compared to more than six hundred billion on education.  And that's the way things should be in a free country such as ours.

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