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The Criminal Justice System: The Crimes of Punishment

The Crying Need for Legal, Penal and Parole Reform
Institute Bulletin No.49 20.January.2003

The loudest advocates of law and order frequently promote policies that increase the crime rate. Few issues have proven a more fertile breeding ground for hysteria, cheap political shots and outright lies. It is time for some straight talk.

Liberals have too often conceded the premises of the right. They are too eager, too often, to state “I’m as tough on crime as you are.” Unfortunately, liberals have rarely challenged conservatives on the critical essential point: the solutions of the right are not only repressive, but also ineffective.

Academicians and theoreticians have been equally unconstructive equally often. They have more concerns for Albanians and East Timorese and have ignored crime as a burden carried by the Canadian poor. After hundreds of marches for hundreds of causes, no one has marched for them.

Despite decades of experimentation and analyses, the fact remains that the fundamental source of crime is rooted in the pathology of poverty. Joblessness, purposeless men and women, broken families, a school system that does not educate and the accompanying epidemics of alcohol and drug abuse. Anatole France wrote many years ago that “…the slums of the great cities are the breeding grounds of crime…” That is still true today.

A start to solutions can begin with the following six proposals:

1. We must recognize that the justice system itself is one of the great festering swamps of crime. From the beginning  suspects are stripped of any connection with the community whose law they have allegedly broken. They are isolated, turned into an object to be processed, driven further and further from any sense that they are human beings who matter. This kind of treatment is a catalyst of crime. We need more investment in professionals in the criminal justice system acting as facilitators and intervenors between the accused and the community he needs to remain connected to. It is always easy to ecnomize when it suits us, but the irony is that as long as we keep economizing this way many will return as criminals and as the creators of other victims.

2. The participation of the criminal’s community is important in breaking the crime cycle. Incarceration is by definition an alienating experience. But when a convict is sent hundreds of miles from his community the effects are much worse and produce an anger that is uncontrollable. The current policy of centralization into mass prisons should be reversed and experiments must be made to keep felons under custody closer to their own communities. In the United States, due to prison overcrowding, remarkably effective work is underway using “halfway houses” staffed by personnel who understand the culture and content of the communities of the convicts. However well intentioned correctional officers may be, the ambience of a fortress has been proven for decades to cripple the possibility of rehabilitation.

3. Penal Reform. Between 70-75% of all crimes are committed by recidivists—men and women who have been in jail before. The reason is simple. Most inmates come out of jail more bitter, more turned against the straight world, than they were when they were first imprisoned. The term “corrections” is wrong. In Ramsey Clark’s famous phrase, prisons are “factories of crime”. We must make our system truly correctional by focusing on rehabilitation rather than punishment. For every Federal dollar spent on corrections 90 cents goes for purely custody purposes: guards, walls and bars. Only the small balance goes to job training and placement, education and work-release programs. This ratio must be drastically reversed. We must begin to reform the basic impulses of the correctional system. Large prisons should be replaced by smaller jails of minimum and moderate security. Prisoners should be separated on the basis of age, seriousness of offense and sexual predilection. The  idea of homosexual wings or prisons is far less offensive than the reality of young men subject to rape and assault. Prison rehabilitation programs should include job training for jobs that actually exist on the outside. Home furloughs for selected inmates as a deterrent to aggressive homosexuality and as a means of restoring an inmate’s bond with his community.

4. Law Reform. Penologists and judicial experts agree that prison and court overcrowding would be alleviated dramatically by a more flexible attitude toward victimless crimes—gambling, prostitution, drunkenness, drug possession and many so-called “white collar crimes. These make up about half the nontraffic arrests in Canada. If the laws under which these arrests are made were reformed, not only would it lessen over-crowding, but it would also permit police to focus on more serious crimes. Laws prohibiting employment of ex-convicts should be made Charter violations. Some thrity-five different professions bar exconvicts. A system of rewarding productive behavior should be included directly in the criminal justice system. New York’s Court Employment Project is a great success and a great example. It provides jobs, group therapy and a structured program for people awaiting trial. If participants get and hold a job and remain crime-free for three months, the court dismisses charges

5. Parole Board Reform. More professional parole boards that include psychiatrists and reformers who have direct contact with prisoners and a noncustodial bias are necessary components of any overall reform program. In too many instances board appointees have been patronage picks with knee-jerk prejudices in place of knowledgeable process.

6. Increased citizen participation in the police process. The formation of block and building associations should be encouraged. This would be an invaluable resource helping police keep an eye on the hidden corners of streets and alleys of hallways and elevators. Police are not the only deterrent to street crime. The solidarity of neighbors and their willingness to protect each other are effective in making streets safer.

Beryl P. Wajsmann


Institute for Public Affairs of Montreal

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