American Injustice: Part 10 of 10

Based on the book Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice by Adam Benforado.
For more detailed information, read the book.

Visionary Changes

Even more radical changes could be considered. What if we replaced the prison with a virtual corrections environment? A convicted criminal might continue to live at home and work at their job, but be required to spend two hours every day in an immersive online space tailored to deterrence, rehabilitation, or whatever else is deemed best. We would no longer have to house, feed, or cloth most inmates. Punishment would be only that intended and not the unintended violence of prison. Revision of our justice system is limited only by our creativity.

The entire adversarial approach involving opposing partisan participants could be eliminated. Other countries have done so successfully. Having both prosecutors and defense lawyers focused on fairness and truth rather than wrangling over procedural rules with adversarial lawyers could shorten trials and reduce plea bargaining, where constitutional protections do not apply and one or two people become accuser, investigator, adjudicator, and sentencer. Plea bargains bypass due process. Winning would no longer be the ultimate goal; justice and fairness would be.

Prison guards could be retrained from being “zoo keepers” focused on securing prisoners in cages and responding only to violence and escape attempts to being social workers and mentors focused on rehabilitation and reintegration of prisoners into society. Non-violent prisoners should be helped to maintain contact with families and community support. Limiting prisoner contact with the outside world and destroying family interactions does not prevent crime; it engenders it. Ensuring stable employment on release significantly reduces recidivism. Day passes for employment should be available whenever safely possible,

Citizenship rights should be restored to every prisoner upon release. The goal should be enabling every offender to become a productive person. Research shows that in three to seven years after a crime, offenders are no more likely to be rearrested than a non-offender. Denying someone a job, welfare benefits, housing, loans, or voting rights, inhibits rehabilitation and reintegration into society.

We need to treat crime as a public health issue rather than as an issue of deliberate malevolence deserving blame and punishment. When a dangerous disease breaks out, we do not focus on blame or the sinfulness of those who are ill. We focus on causation and healing. Roughly a third to a half of the American prison population suffers from serious mental health disorders. Many are poor, uneducated and survivors of childhood abuse and neglect. Many crimes are the result of complicated determinants and not voluntary, intentional acts by “evil” people.

We need to quit wasting time trying to figure out who really deserves blame. While still holding people accountable for despicable acts and isolating from society those who are dangerous, we can stop subjecting every criminal to contempt and poor treatment and stop the payback mentality. We can shift our focus to remedying harm, rehabilitating the perpetrator, discouraging others from similar acts, and addressing the conditions that precipitated the crime in the first place. Viewing prisons more as hospitals puts the focus on treating underlying causes and quarantining individuals who are a threat to the public or are incurable. Juvenile courts, drug courts, mental health courts, military veteran courts, and other specialty courts are a step in this direction. These specialty courts have proven very effective, but they are a small fraction of our justice system. Some incorrigible, violent offenders must be locked away permanently. Most offenders are not in that category.

Facilitating apologies, providing restitution and aiding forgiveness are effective means of repairing harm. Shifting tax dollars from prisons and courts to improving neighborhoods is very cost effective. A single death-penalty case can cost $1 million to $3 million. One year in a supermax prison can cost $75,000. Spending resources on prevention is far cheaper, and it avoids the mistakes, biases, and acts of dishonesty in our system (most of which we don’t even know and none of which we can ever mitigate).

Revising our criminal justice system requires us to stop considering our current system as sacrosanct and immutable. It is absurd to think that Henry Ford would build the same Model T today. It is just as absurd to think that James Madison would deliver a Bill of Rights identical to the one he created in 1789 or that those who developed our justice system would ignore modern psychological and neurological research on criminal behavior.

We are not more virtuous than our ancestors, but we have the advantage of more knowledge and much more ability to act in momentous ways. But we must act. Progress will depend on public effort. We must pressure law makers to make changes. The arc of history does not bend toward justice unless we bend it.

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