Monday, February 8, 2010

Criminal Justice Reform: Guiding A Change We Can Believe In

By Randy McCall

Looking over news headlines for the last several months, there's one inescapable conclusion; ready or not, changes are coming to the criminal justice system in your country.

They may not be the kind of changes you're thinking of. Victims of crime, and those who advocate for them, need to be aware of potential changes which may be quickly coming in wake of forced austerity programs in government agencies, due either to an increased state debt burden, or a reduction in the tax base.

In many countries, the cost of expensive trials and long prison terms are beginning to be seen as an overwhelming burden the taxpayers, and a drain on resources which some say could be better used in crime prevention programs than in the warehousing of prisoners.

One of the first articles which caught my eye was this: Criminal justice: Tough on crime? Check. Smart on crime? Not so much. The first few paragraphs very explicitly states the opinion of the author:
Numbers from recent years show Texas near the top in adults on probation or parole, prisoners in state correctional institutions, inmates under 18 in state prisons and (here's the punch line) crimes per capita.
Somehow, somewhere, we have been doing something wrong. And that adds up to an unsatisfactory return on what will be a $10.8 billion investment in public safety and criminal justice in the state's 2010-2011 budget.
That's almost 10 percent of state tax dollars. By comparison, 6.7 percent goes to business and economic development and 1.2 percent goes to natural resources.
The reality is that crime stats, more than being a measure of our success in fighting crime, are a measure of our failure in so many other areas.
Some more numbers: Texas has about 155,000 state prisoners. Almost 44,000 have a history of mental illness. On average, a Texas inmate made it to the 10th grade.
We are not getting a sufficient return on our criminal justice dollars because we do not make sufficient investment in other areas, including mental health treatment and public education.
Indeed, in almost every US state, we're seeing stories of justice and victim support programs being cut for lack of funds, on the costs of incarceration and on the early release of prisoners to reduce overcrowding or reduce costs, and on the use of alternative sentencing projects such as the one described in: City signals intent to put fewer teenagers in jail
The Bloomberg administration plans to merge the city’s Department of Juvenile Justice into its child welfare agency, signaling a more therapeutic approach toward delinquency that will send fewer of the city’s troubled teenagers to jail.
There is also a groundswell movement to include the use of Restorative Justice principles as additions -- or, at times, alternatives -- to incarceration for juveniles or non-violent offenders. Even the US Sentencing Commission, which sets federal sentencing guidelines, is ensuring proponents of restorative justice are included in their victim advisory group. Around the world, successful programs are being expanded, including those in Peru, the UK, Taiwan, Turkey, and many others.

In many parts of the US, there is a general dissatisfaction with the justice system as a whole, so much so that a bill to carry out a complete review of the US criminal justice system is receiving broad support.
U.S. Sen. Jim Webb's bill to undertake a broad review of the nation's criminal justice system — on the basis that the one we have isn't working — is one step closer to fruition.

Webb's bill — to appoint a "National Crime Commission" of 13 criminal justice experts — calls for a good, hard look at the justice system "from top to bottom." The bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday and will go now to the Senate floor.

Webb, D-Va., wants a review of everything from drug laws to the treatment of mentally ill inmates to job training programs for prisoners, and everything in between.

Webb talks about how it's unsustainable for taxpayers to simply continue to put more and more people into jails.

The U.S., Webb says, has 5 percent of the world's population but a quarter of its prisoners. There are four times as many mentally ill people imprisoned than in hospitals, he said.

"The overwhelming support from both sides of the aisle for restructuring our criminal justice system is very encouraging for our country," Webb said Thursday. "We are taking an inclusive, broad-based approach here, and ... that's the best way to move our country away from a system based on ideology and fear, and toward what is fair and what keeps us safe."

The bill, which passed on a voice vote out of the committee, has strong bipartisan support and counts groups as diverse as the Fraternal Order of Police, National District Attorneys Association, CATO Institute, NAACP and ACLU are also on board.
It's not just the US which is considering a massive overhaul of their justice systems to prevent tax dollars from going down what now appears to be a bottomless pit. In the United Kingdom, the UK Parliament Justice Committee has issued a report recommending the UK prison population should be cut by a third, while warning of a developing crisis:
A committee of MPs has warned that the criminal justice system is ‘facing a crisis of sustainability’ as government spending on prisons takes resources away from other aspects of criminal justice.
The Justice Committee said the government should make ‘radical moves’ to shift resources away from incarceration towards rehabilitation and projects that tackle the underlying causes of offending like social exclusion, poor education and drug addiction.
The call was backed by Law Society legal aid manager Richard Miller, who said that a reduction in spending on prisons would leave more cash for the legal aid budget.
Certainly, in the UK, the crush of the prison population has reached the point where there is now talk about bringing back prison ships as a way to alleviate overcrowding. Recently UK Justice Minister Jack Straw spoke at a public meeting on the need for extensive criminal justice reform (Video, 36 minutes)

No matter where in the world you live, you will very likely be seeing reforms such as I've described, either as part of austerity programs, as part of social consciousness movements or justice reform projects, or promoted as part of crime prevention programs (using the money in programs that help to stop people from becoming criminals in the first place.

Some of these programs and ideas you may agree with; others may go against everything you believe. The point is that these changes are coming; the changed world economy has seen to this.

What we: as survivors, as advocates, or as organizations must do is stay abreast of developments, trends and plans in our regions, so we can make our voices heard in the halls of government.

Together we can help guide the coming changes into a shape we all can live with.
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