2013

12 June 2013: Criminal justice needs a new focus

Criminal justice needs a new focus

We’re doing something wrong, or perhaps it’s better to say we’re not doing something right.  I’m not talking morally or ethically but pragmatically, although one could present a strong case about the moral and ethical way in which we deal with those members of our society who have for one reason or another gone off the path.

Colorado is not being successful in keeping its parolees out of jail.  The odds of one staying out of jail are worse than 50/50.

According to a recent Denver Post study, “Colorado had the third-highest return-to-prison rate in the nation at 52.5 percent in 2010, according to U.S. Department of Justice statistics. The national average was 32.8 percent.”  That is more than twice that of Oklahoma’s, which was 23 percent in 2008.

With regard to the overall parolee completion rate, only 46.2 percent complete theirs compared to a national average of 51.3 percent.

In Colorado, one might as well flip a slightly weighted coin to see which parolee will be back in jail within three years.  That’s not hard to understand in that parolees are often given $100 and dropped off at a RTD bus stop with little or no support from the community, oftentimes with only the prospect of returning to the same environment and community where he/she got in trouble in the first place.

To put it in perspective, leave home with only $100, the clothes on your back, and your toothbrush and see how long it’s gone on food and shelter.

Colorado interim corrections director Roger Werholtz told the Post. “We’re good at containing people. Where there is a lot of room for improvement … is what people do when they get out.”

Amen, brother.

Given we’re among the most educated states, there’s an incongruence taking place.  We’re not very smart when it comes to our criminal justice system, and the zest by some for capital punishment fits into that thinking.  That’s a topic, though, I’ll revisit in a future piece.

For those of us not mired in the Old Testament eye-for-eye mindset, our focus ought to be looking at ways to intervene and create an environment that not only administers consequences but also provides a path for redemption.  From what I learned in 12 years of Catholic education, that was the new way, the reason they call it the New Testament.

As the first-century Jewish teacher Hillel summarized it, “Do not unto your neighbor what you would not have him do unto you; this is the whole Law; the rest is commentary.”

I’m not arguing for a warm fuzzy approach to hardened individuals, but a more intelligent, pragmatic one that will make us a safer community, help restore those who’ve done their time to a sense of dignity, and save us taxpayers untold millions of dollars.

In order to do that, it’s necessary for each to go back to his/her essential premise about human beings: Are we naturally born with a proclivity for bad behavior or is that tendency to act illicitly, one which we are all guilty of at one point or another, something learned or perhaps a reaction to one’s life’s circumstances?

Ethical behavior comes about when one feels truly empowered.  Being a victim—feeling depowered—or even perceiving one is a victim results in fear and at times an urge to act out so to overpower the system or, on a very personal level, other people.

It’s one thing for one in trouble to believe that he/she is a bad or defective person and quite another to believe in his/her essential goodness but has gone astray from the norms, the expectations of the tribe.  If one believes in the latter, he/she will be far more open to restitution and restorative justice, which the Restorative Justice website says “emphasizes repairing the harm caused by crime [with] victims, offenders and community members meet[ing] to decide how to do that.”

In other words we need to move from a strictly punitive approach to corrections and personal accountability.

The results, it insists can be “transformational.” According to the RJ report, there was a decline of 27 percent in the UK and a 20 percent in New Zealand reoffending.

“Restorative Justice conferencing,” it says, “is more effective in cases of serious crime, particularly cases of violence, than in cases of property theft, or minor incidents. Overall, restorative justice conferencing, reduces reoffending by about 20 percent, with around 90 percent of victims registering satisfaction with the process, and indicating that it has helped them in the healing process.”

It’s time to change the focus of the conversation about criminal justice.

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