Criminal justice reform stays perpetually under the Media radar, but not CivCon’s. We have debated juvenile justice, the death penalty, mass incarceration, marijuana legalization, and other topics. This stuff can get complicated and it is not my area, so I usually like to tackle it one issue area at a time.
But, Linda had an interesting idea: Go back to first principles. What should our criminal justice system be trying to do? Is the goal punishment, vengeance, public safety, rehabilitation, or something else? Who sets those goals and how do we know which purposes are the priority?
The Trump Administration sure acts like it knows. And you’ll applaud if your idea of reform is to reverse Obama-era reforms that made the system a little less punitive. As promised, law and order is back. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has expanded use of mandatory minimum sentences and local police departments’ asset forfeiture powers. He probably will refuse to enforce the many consent decrees that the Obama DOJ negotiated city-by-city to clean up systematic police mismanagement and abuses. There’s more, and more coming. See the links.
Liberal reforms still have momentum, however, because a fragile but bipartisan consensus has emerged at the state/local levels that the current mass incarceration-producing system needs a big rethink. It is unsustainable financially, politically, and morally. It probably has passed the point of net marginal benefit (to society, individuals) and it is no longer necessary as crime rates have dropped.
So, despite events in Washington, D.C., Linda’s question fits the times. Specifically, Linda asks whether the true purpose of America’s criminal justice system is:
- Retribution, or
To those goals I might add:
4. Incapacitation (warehousing so they can’t commit more crimes),
6. Restoration (reconciling with their victims and communities).
We also can debate more controversial notions about The System’s real intentions, such as whether it is a deliberate system of racial control and/or increasingly just a big stream of cash to be privatized for a profit motive. I have other theories that I will raise. This is a big topic. But, how can we judge the need for criminal justice reform without knowing what the current system is trying to do?
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- In whose eyes? Who sets the purposes of justice? Legislatures/courts? Bureaucrats? The police? Experts? The public (which public)?
- Motives/Incentives: What motivates each of the above actors? Different interests/preferences or different biases?
- The System – Purposes: Which ones matter overall the most and how do you know this?
- The precautionary principle or the inertia of decision accretion. Important concepts!
- Others: Racism, fear, profit, etc.
- JUSTICE? What does that mean?
4. The System – Evolution: How have purposes evolved since 1980? Why?
5. Future: Which way will reform go? How can your preferred direction be realized?
OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READING –
- The 5 goals of the criminal justice system. Defines terms.
- Americans are divided on what the main goals should be.
- Who is locked up in the USA and why: Explainer and pie chart. Recommended.
Trump’s Reforms –
- Trump is reversing Obama’s criminal justice reforms. Some conservatives say it’s a good thing, others are horrified. Recommended.
- National Criminal justice Commission: 20 senators propose creating one.
- Can bipartisan criminal justice reform survive in the Trump era?
Stuff you may not know –
- Bail reform is badly needed. Recommended. California may do it.
- Bad news for liberal reformers: Mass incarceration is driven by violent crime, not drug convictions.
NEXT WEEK: Is Africa’s future a bright one?