In the criminal justice system, three groups have agency: the victim, the offender, and society at large. Our ability to balance these interests will determine the efficacy of our criminal justice system.
Getting it right relies on the probity and shared values of police, prosecutors, judges, and corrections officials as the offender migrates through the criminal justice system.
Today, our outcomes couldn’t be worse. We jail more people than any other world power, including Russia and China, at a cost this year of more than a trillion dollars. Our national five-year recidivism rate is 76%. Vermont’s prison population has doubled in twenty years even though we’re one of the safest states in the country. The battle cries that got us here are cultural – “lock ‘em up”, and political – “tough on crime”. Neither are sustainable or make us safer.
If our goals are only to protect society, punish the offender, and avenge the victim, we’ll keep failing miserably. The interests of surviving victims are critical but so are society’s interest in returning rehabilitated offenders safely to their families and communities.
I don’t believe offenders automatically forfeit all their rights. And I’m deeply troubled by the religious fundamentalists of all faiths who ignore the teachings of their deities about mercy and forgiveness. Our criminal justice system must do more than reflect the political and economic interests of those in power, it must also reflect our deeper human and spiritual values.
It’s counterproductive to lock away the young person who made an impulsive mistake, the migrant crossing our border fleeing violence, the drug-user addicted by his dentist or doctor, the working mother who can’t feed her children. If we focus on outcomes instead of vengeance or the myth of deterrence, we can create a more affordable and effective criminal justice system.
We all make mistakes for which we’ll be judged. But our lives should not be defined forever by our worst mistake. Everyone deserves a redemptive path, a way to apologize to our victim, pay a reasonable penalty, and make our way back home to those who love us.
Thankfully, restorative justice, court diversion, and circles of support and accountability are all gaining traction. And surely we can do better than we have.