Saturday, February 13, 2010

Can the Criminal Justice System Be Reformed?

The nation’s criminal justice system is in need of an overhaul. This is particularly true of its incarceration policies. Too many people are being put behind bars who do not need to be there, at great cost to the states, and not enough attention is being paid to helping released prisoners re-enter society.


To point out that the criminal justice system is in need of reform is an understatement. But need for reform is rarely the bedfellow of action. In other words, I have am extremely pessimistic about the chances of significant reform.

First, the criminal justice system has become infested with the profit motive. Things have gotten so bad that the term criminal justice-industrial complex is frequently applied. The money involved, the turf to protect, and the vested interests will make reform difficult.

We can apply Newton's laws of motion to the issue of criminal justice reform. The criminal justice system today is a system defined by its inertia - and an object at rest cannot move unless acted upon by an outside force. While public opinion shows that a significant portion of citizens are dissatisfied with the current status of the the criminal justice system, such opinion may be insufficient to move the criminal justice system to reform. The current budget crisis facing most states may, however, generate some force. Will it be enough?

Newton's third law - for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction - also applies. Look at the reaction to California's plan to release non-violent inmates. Any attempt at reform will be met with charges of being soft on crime. The need to show that getting tough on crime has not worked - in fact, it has made matters worse - and the inability to sustain the expansion of the criminal justice-industrial complex should overcome the resistance to reform in a rational world.

To see how the reform issue might evolve, we can examine how states like Idaho exhibit manifestations of Newton's laws. In the midst of the worst budget crisis in recent memory, there is little discussion of sentencing and/or prison reform. And we can expect that any reform initiated at the federal level will be met with the same resistance and criticism as the current debate over health insurance reform - the governor has threatened litigation and the legislature is considering a bill that would require exemption from federal mandates.

While reform is clearly needed, I just don't think the feds can move many of the states to action. But the consequences of failure in this effort are significant - wasted money, wasted lives, and lost opportunities including reducing the size and scope of a permanent underclass.


Anonymous said...

I like your theory. It makes perfect sense but your statement, " I just don't think the feds can move many of the states to action", omits the glaring need for the fed itself to clean up it's own act.

As a strong supporter of HR1529 the “Second Chance for Ex-Offenders Act of 2009” I am very familiar with the "inertia" that you reference. The "carrot" of this bill has been held out for 8 years but the "stick" of a lifetime stigma still reigns.

Dr. Michael Blankenship said...

You make a good point. The federal system is no less chaotic. For example, look at how long it took to straighten out the sentencing disparity between crack and powdered cocaine. But at least the federal system may be a bit more responsive to reform since its operations are tied to the budget.