Yesterday in a business meeting, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed the National Criminal Justice Commission Act. The Act, introduced in March 2009 by Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA), would form a 14-member, bipartisan commission tasked with reviewing the entire criminal justice system. After the review, the commission would form unanimous recommendations to be passed to Congress, the President and the Judiciary branch as suggestions for change throughout the system.
The criminal justice system in the United States has grown tremendously in recent history, with incarceration increasing by 500% in the last 30 years. At 5% of the world’s population, the United States now houses 25% of the world’s inmates. That’s 7.3 million men, women and children and 5 times higher than the international average incarceration rate.
The retributive culture of our system has contributed to making punishment, not reform or repentance, our norm. “Tough on crime” responses have put people in prison who would likely have benefitted from alternative rehabilitation programs. For example, there are currently 4 times as many mentally ill persons in prison than in mental health hospitals.
It’s also true that minorities are disproportionately incarcerated, receiving harsher sentences than white counterparts despite committing a similar crime. The racial disparities within the system are too high to ignore and continue to systemically draw racial lines through our society and individual relationships.
The culture inside prisons, wrought with violence and sexual assault, increases the necessity of violence for simple survival. This is especially true for juveniles housed with adults. Alongside such violence, prisons remove a person from responsibility for:
- the real consequences of the crime experienced by the victim and community
- basic day-to-day responsibilities like working, caring for one’s own basic needs and,
- taking full responsibility for their actions by truly making right was wronged.
Prison life compounds violent behavior and separation from basic human needs and responsibilities. For these reasons and more, released inmates lack the basic skills needed to reenter society and be self-sustaining, productive members of a community. This can make prison a “revolving door”; prisoners without rehabilitation recommit crimes, only to return.
The Commission would look at all of these issues, their root causes, and more. The opportunity to form recommendations based on real and integrated research from a number of experts, criminal justice workers and those affected by the system, could create space to make our society more restorative than retributive.
The system as it exists has numerous flaws which affect every individual in the country. Healing from victimization and criminalization is nuanced (to say the least) and difficult. This cannot be solved by such retributive practices. We need an opportunity to reform the system around the actual causes of crime and violence. This is one step in that direction.