People sometimes do very bad things, things so egregious that we do not feel safe having them live among us. We have to find them, try them for their crimes, and if found guilty sentence them to punishments that fit their actions. We have a criminal justice system for that which is struggling on many fronts. At this moment in the United States we have the largest prison population in the world both in actual numbers and percentages. We struggle with ethical questions of what we should do to prevent crimes and how to treat the perpetrators once they have been convicted. We can’t seem to decide whether our system should focus on punishment, rehabilitation, or some effective combination of both. We wonder what we might have done to prevent crimes in the first place thus eliminating the need for so many centers of incarceration.
I’m fascinated by the criminal mind. I have always wondered what drives an individual to the point of committing unlawful acts, especially those that are violent. I’ve been a reader of mysteries from childhood and my favorite television programs and movies have always been those that depict detective work, the law, and the frightening world of prison life. I suppose that I have always believed that if only we were able to unravel the threads of lives gone so bad we might learn as a society what causes them to reach a point of breaking the law. I suppose that such a dream has confounded humans since Cain murdered Abel.
I am a frequent viewer of programs like Dateline, 20/20, and 48 Hours. I watch Oxygen and Investigation Discovery. Recently Dateline featured a hard look at the country’s criminal justice system by way of Angola Prison in Louisiana. The episode focused on the problems of housing large populations of prisoners for long periods of time and asked the burning question, “Should criminal justice focus on punishment or rehabilitation?”
One of the most pressing problems in our country’s prison systems resulted from the hard line of the war on drugs. Because of the no nonsense feature of our efforts to eliminate the drug trade by giving drug users harsh sentences the prison population swelled and many of those found guilty are serving excessively long terms. The medical community has learned through research that illegal drug usage and addiction is in truth a medical problem rather than a criminal one. What most drug addicts need is assistance in beating their habits. Instead we have all too often put them away in jails where they interact with murderers and other violent sorts. The money that we are spending on warehousing them for decades might have better been spent on sending them to centers for rehabilitation.
Another concern has to do with another outdated trend to try minors accused of violent acts as adults. There are now individuals in their seventies who received life sentences when they were only sixteen or seventeen years old. They have spent their entire adult lives behind bars with no hope for parole until the Supreme Court recently ruled that minors must always be tried in an age appropriate manner and their sentences must reflect the extenuating circumstances of their ages. We now know that the human brain is not fully formed until around the age of twenty five, In particular the centers of the brain that control behaviors are often the last to form, Thus the kinds of risky and inappropriate acts in which teenagers are known to engage appear to be part of development. Courts have ruled that inmates who were convicted and sentenced as adults for crimes committed as minors have the right to parole hearings even when they were sentenced to life without any hope of reconsideration.
The optics of the Dateline program were disturbing. Many of the inmates at Angola work in fields cultivating crops day after day in harsh weather conditions. The vast majority of them are black, begging the question of why this is so. What is so wrong with our society that so many resort to criminal behavior and what might we do to change this trend before such individuals end up in the prison system? These are dire needs that we have yet to fully meet. We have to break the cycles that plague the poor, the undereducated, the hopeless.
President Trump recently signed a bill offering many reforms of the federal criminal justice system, but the vast majority of the prison population are governed by state laws that do not fall under the umbrella of the changes made by the president. There are also still many citizens who sincerely believe that the only correct answer to discourage criminal acts is to follow a hard line. The debate continues while the number of the incarcerated grows.
More and more criminologists are learning that people can and do change if given opportunities to redirect their lives. They know that removing all hope only creates even more violence. Prisons now use more women guards who have the effect of calming the prisoners. Conditions are improving as research teaches more and more about how to rehabilitate the fallen.
There are those whose acts were so horrendous that they should never again walk amongst us, but there are also people who have paid for their mistakes and truly changed. It’s time we consider humane and caring ways of helping them to become contributing members of society. States should follow the president’s lead in enacting justice and prison reforms. We need programs that understand and support the unique needs of those who are attempting to reenter the world of freedom. We need to focus on education and counseling at the earliest possible ages. It’s not about letting monsters run lose but about providing purpose and direction for those who have genuinely changed. It’s about compassion and forgiveness for those deserving of our consideration. It’s a focus that should be a priority for all good minded people everywhere.