I didn’t think much about the criminal justice system until a few years ago. I had very few encounters with the law, or with people who had been in the system. I mean, the neighbor with whom I watched events unfold on 9/11 was a huge adorable former felon out on parole, and was one of the best neighbors I’d ever had. And I hired local law enforcement to provide security at some tea party rallies when needed. And I’ve been pulled over a few times for traffic stops, and I think I had a warrant out on me for failure to take care of one of those. That’s about the entire extent of my interaction with the justice system. I imagine most of the people who read my work have similar stories, and an understandable perspective that people who get tangled in the justice system are different from the rest of us.
But here’s the thing that’s informed my thinking lately: Everything is becoming criminalized at an alarming rate. You know this. Not only do you read about it, you intuitively get this. People collecting rain water are arrested, jailed, and fined. People have been thrown in jail for unpaid student loans. People have been arrested for merely having legal guns in their vehicle during a traffic stop. And as tea party people like me have protested against bigger and more intrusive government, legislatures and congress continue to increase the number of things for which a person may be arrested. Isn’t it pretty clear that as more things are designated as crimes, more of us are going to be at risk for falling into the criminal justice system? Are we surprised when ‘good people’ are swept up in the web of laws and regulations and the guarantees that we are committing multiple felonies a day?
Well, it’s not enough for me to merely publicize these cases anymore. It’s not enough to merely share the latest outrage and then move on to the next one. It’s time to commit to changing things. It’s time to start looking at the entire justice system, and learning more about the things that are done in our names and called ‘justice.’
FAIRNESS – The cases I cited above are gross abuses of government power, and the punishments are way out of line with the offenses. But those aren’t the only types of unfairness in the system. We all know there are cases of non-violent offenders getting sentenced to harsher terms than child rapists and murderers. That’s a flaw in the system that doesn’t help keep us safer. In the name of giving prosecutors more tools to go after ‘kingpins’ we’ve created a justice system that is anything but just. Add in the entire specter of Civil Asset Forfeiture, and you can see how the system currently breeds unfairness AND profits from it.
COST – We are spending $80 billion in the U.S. per year to keep over 2 million Americans behind bars. It’s clear from the cases above that incarceration is the wrong answer for some of those offenses. And given the ever-increasing rate of growth in actions that are deemed to be criminal offenses, that promises to become true of even more offenses in the future. Additionally, as people age in the criminal justice system, the costs to incarcerate them go up as well; health care costs alone are growing at an alarming rate. In the federal system, over 1/3 of the budget for the Department of Justice goes to incarceration costs for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Yeah, I didn’t know that was a thing either.
OUTCOMES – Around 95% of the people who are incarcerated will return to their communities, rather than spend the remainder of their lives behind bars. This means that they will need to find a way to integrate themselves back into society. We want them to reject further criminal activity and turn their lives towards being productive members of society. But are we doing what we can while they are incarcerated to reduce recidivism and to give them opportunities to do the things we expect them to do? And by throwing so many people behind bars, are we perhaps overlooking other options available to us to help steer them away from criminal activity? I think we can do more; I think we MUST do more. We can’t focus only on the punitive aspects of prison and ignore the opportunities for diversion and restitution and rehabilitation. Our streets will never be safer if we merely shove people in the prison doors and let them out unchanged, or worse, hardened even further into career criminals.
So that’s why I’m going to be adding justice reform to the list of issues I focus on going forward. And here are some of the partner organizations I’m recommending to people who want to look into these issues more deeply.
Keep watching this space, and keep an eye out for other articles on the subject from the authors of these related posts: