Some people have asked me why I am so passionate about criminal justice reform. Here is why.
First of all, we have a system that is very expensive (in VT for example, it costs $60k per year to incarcerate one individual, and that is not including the police and court costs, etc.) but we have poor outcomes for our investment. By that I mean, what we do does not work—it does not lead to greater public safety or less crime. It does not rehabilitate folks. Research shows that, all things being equal, a prison sentence actually makes people more likely to re-offend. So does that mean I am saying let’s just close the prisons and let everyone free? No. But what I am saying is this: we need to think much harder about who we incarcerate, why, and for how long. A majority of those in prison can be supervised in the community more effectively, less expensively, and with better results for families and communities. In Europe for example, they don’t really have “life sentences.” The most someone might get would be 10-14 years for the most serious crimes. What is their re-offense rate like compared to ours? I think you can guess. So what amazes me is how happy we are to just keep punishing people to satisfy our anger, and to spend a lot of tax dollars to do so–tax dollars that could go to mental health services, housing, parenting programs or any number of initiatives that might help prevent criminal behavior in the first place. We do not insist on good outcomes from our justice system. Most of us don’t even know much about the system. It does not serve the greater good–or even the goal of public safety–to happily pouring money into a system just to get our pound of flesh. In many cases, we contribute to our own future victimization and/or tax burden.
And finally, for me it’s a basic human rights issue. If we are going to take away a person’s liberty, we should do so carefully, judiciously, and with restraint. It is or should be a big deal. The U.S. comprises 5% of the world’s total population, but accounts for a whopping 25% of the incarcerated population for the entire planet. Research consistently finds that most adults have done something at one point in their lives for which they could receive a prison sentence. The difference between the “guilty” and the “innocent” is not as clear as we pretend. Certainly we criminalize too many things. And certainly we incarcerate some people who do not need to be in prison. A fairly typical situation for an incarcerated individual is they committed a financial crime committed to support an addiction to an illegal drug, often the result of self-medication due to past trauma. There is no evidence to support the notion that this person’s underlying problem—their addiction or their poverty—will be helped by a prison stint.
As a humanist, I believe in the fundamental dignity of all humans, even those who offend us the most. I believe everyone deserves a second chance (Jesus did, too, by the way), and most everyone can change if given the right tools, and the support of the community. Our current system diminishes that prospect. Vermont is a small, innovative state that could embrace laws and policies that reflect what research shows will work to help us all. We must radically reform our criminal justice system.
– Kathy Fox, Ph.D.
Kathy Fox is Professor of Sociology at the University of Vermont
the views presented here do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer, the University of Vermont.