Promoting Public Safety

Is the criminal justice system broken? If so, how do we best fix it?

Is the criminal justice system broken? And if the answer is yes, how do we fix it?

Civil libertarians (and many others) want to limit the power of the state. We want to draw bright lines: government cannot tell us what to read, cannot mandate our prayers, cannot dictate our opinions. Murky as the public debates on such issues frequently appear, the principle is clear.

But government clearly has a legitimate and important role to play in securing the public safety. While I have seen no poll, I am confident that wide consensus exists for the proposition that government should protect citizens from being victimized by crime. Why, then, are so many of our bitterest public debates centered on the criminal justice system?

A full answer to that question would consume far more space than this column affords. Continued attempts by a supposedly conservative Congress to federalize crime, concerns about discriminatory enforcement, arguments about what acts should be defined as criminal–all merit discussion. But a critical piece of the puzzle may just be the conflicts among us on an even more central issue: the central purpose of the system and its various parts.

I recently attended a meeting between a northern Indiana group advocating prison reforms, the Commissioner of the Indiana Department of Corrections, and a representative of the governor’s office. The subject was solitary confinement. Currently, inmates in certain of Indiana’s maximum security institutions can be placed in such confinement–with nearly total sensory deprivation– for unlimited periods of time. Many spend months and even years with virtually no human contact. Nor does any current law or policy prevent placing mentally ill convicts in such "holes." The advocacy group, composed primarily of clergy and other religious leaders, wanted a rule that would limit the duration of such confinements and would preclude them for the mentally ill.

Depending upon one’s point of view, it would be easy to characterize the meeting participants as either "bleeding hearts" or "sadistic jailers." But both labels are unfair. The American Correctional Association is on record as stating that excessively long periods in isolation are "counterproductive as a safety measure." Many other punitive measures embraced by our legislators have been vigorously opposed as unworkable or unwise by the DOC. For their part, reformers point to research findings that lengthy periods in solitary confinement make convicts much more dangerous upon their release. Whether a policy is "humane" is a different issue than whether it promotes public safety or endangers it.

The fundamental issue is the purpose of the prison system. If the goal is to enhance public safety, the emphasis will be on giving prisoners the interpersonal and occupational skills that will keep them from being a continuing threat to society. If the purpose is solely to punish, very different policies will be in place. As a society, we need to decide which purpose we want our prisons to serve.

We can’t fix it until we decide what we want it to do.