One of the biggest debates over criminal justice reform in the United States has been about the culture and goals of our prison system. The form something takes is, in many ways, shaped by its goal. As such, when we make the goal of our prison system to simply punish people for wrongdoing, they tend to take a pretty grim turn. And it’s understandable — when someone hurts another, there needs to be a consequence. But the type of consequence has an enormous effect on whether or not a prisoner will, one day, end up back in jail.

Goals Are Key

When we make the primary goal of our prison system to punish people, as opposed to primarily rehabilitate an offender into becoming a productive member of society, there is another unintended consequence — they are far more likely to return to prison after release.

The United States, with the good intention of disincentivizing recidivism, ended up making the problem worse. Longer prison sentences, more surveillance, and the prevalence of relying on probation officers and a cash bail system all had no effect on recidivism. People were just as likely to reoffend, even with harsher consequences.

So, instead of focusing only on a system that’s there to punish people, what other options are there? How can we stop recidivism in its tracks?

The Rehabilitative Approach

In medicine, if at all possible, a doctor will try to prescribe a treatment regimen that will attack the actual cause of a disease, rather than to merely address the patient’s symptoms. This is the approach that we desperately need to take in order to stop recidivism in it tracks. But what does this mean?

To begin with, it’s essential to look at the factors which lead to criminal activity. Most often, it comes down to lack of opportunity, whether that’s educational or economic. For instance, people who cannot provide for their basic necessities often get trapped in circumstances where criminal activity will provide, especially where a family is related. An area lacking economic development will have a shortage of employment, leading to higher rates of crime.

Furthermore, educational opportunities directly impact the ability of an individual to improve their station in life. In these circumstances, an individual might live in an area with better economic opportunities, but cannot access them due to a lack of educational opportunity. Think about how many quality jobs require a basic degree. For those raised in middle class households and up, this is a fairly regular expectation. For those raised in poverty, it’s a much different case.

Targeting the Cause in Practice

So just what does a rehabilitative approach to criminal justice reform mean? For one, it means to stop looking at “one size fits all” solutions. The reality is that crime is messy, as are the conditions that underlie any given situation. There are a plethora of causes for crime. Sometimes, it’s economic conditions, sometimes, it’s lack of opportunity in other areas, and still other times, especially in the case of younger offenders, can be something that simply boils down to boredom. None of these situations would necessarily be dealt with in the same way.

When we look at regular, everyday people who do not commit crimes and live normal lives, often times we can start to see the missing pieces in the lives of those who are criminal offenders. Yet this only serves to demonstrate the need for case-by-case evaluation of criminal activity in meting out justice.

The Biggest Issue

We have to admit one thing up front — our system is broken, and we’ve been treating it like a roof being repaired with duct tape. There’s absolutely no way that sort of fix is acceptable, as it won’t even begin to solve the problem.

We don’t teach children the fundamental issues of personal financial literacy. Kids, especially in poorer areas, lack access to people who can teach them the basic skills needed to acquire economic opportunity and to thrive with it. These are skills like how to interview for a job, how to form a resume, and how to use a bank. There are plenty of examples of schools doing this, but these are not the overwhelming majority. We cannot simply rely on exceptions to carry us forward. We must make these changes in education from the earliest place.

One fact is clear: the best way to prevent recidivism is to prevent incarceration in the first place. If a person never commits a crime to begin with, there is no jail in their life to return to. So the main issue is ensuring that kids get the opportunity they need to save themselves from going to prison to begin with. But this is one that will take a lot of time, energy, and money. This is the long-term goal, and it is one we must take on head-first. While we’re doing this, however, there are plenty we can do as well at the same time.

What We Can Do Right Now

Along the way, there are other avenues we can take to try and stem the tide with current incarcerated persons which will help to decrease recidivism.

Sentence Splits: The parole system we have in this country is in desperate need of reform. It’s a rigged game where those who are trying to live on the straight and narrow are set up for failure. They are released into communities with strict rules, yet lacking the resources to navigate society. Likely, there are issues of behavioral and mental health, education, support groups, and many more to boot. So when we release prisoners onto a harsh parole system, they are very likely to go right back to jail for something so small as not making enough money to pay a parole fee. This makes recidivism all but guaranteed for a large chunk of individuals who want to make a better life for themselves after prison.

Probation Reform: We should all push for a system where the probation officers and the entire system is there for the goal of ensuring that individuals have the support they need to prevent themselves from going back to jail. This means that we need to ensure that probation officers are properly trained and have the same goal — keeping people on the straight and narrow as opposed to simply looking for ways for their wards to return to prison. We need a system whose goal is to produce productive members of society, not simply to punish people.

Case By Case Approach: Practices such as mandatory minimums and the like are systems by which all people convicted of certain offenses are given excruciatingly harsh sentences regardless of circumstance. So, for instance, a 17 year old kid dealing crack with no criminal history stands to likely receive the same penalty as a 27 year old adult with various other interactions with law enforcement and a history of violence. This makes no sense. We need criminal justice to act more like a doctor curing a disease. Treatment needs to be individualized, and not universal.

Restorative Justice Makes a Difference

In speaking about the necessity of criminal justice reform, we also need to take a close look at restorative justice in practice. It’s been well documented that these practices are effective in curbing recidivism and repairing the damage that is done by crime as well as the damage done to inmates who committed them. But just what does it mean?

In short, Restorative Justice is, in some form, a system where those who have committed crimes actually interact with the victims of their crimes in an effort to find closure and forgiveness for and from all parties respectively. This is very much so a component of treating criminal justice like a doctor treats a disease. Part of the healing process is making up for the wrongs committed, not just to society as a whole, but at the very least developing closure with those directly affected by a specific person’s actions.

We really need a comprehensive plan for criminal justice reform in order to ensure that we stop recidivism in its tracks for good. This is the roadmap for doing just that.

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