A Critique Of Philosophical Approaches To Criminal

Justice Reform Essay, Research Paper

People are arrested every day in the United States. They are put on probation or sent to jail, and sometimes they are let out on parole; there are millions of people affected. In 1995 alone there were over five million people under some form of correctional supervision, and the number is steadily increasing. The incarceration rate is skyrocketing: the number of prison inmates per 100,000 people has risen from 139 in 1980 to 411 in 1995. This is an immense financial burden on the country. Federal expenditure for correctional institutions alone increased 248% from 1982 to 1992. Obviously something has to be changed in the justice system. If the crime rate is rising this much, the correctional justice system isn’t functioning properly, and needs to be reformed. Many people have offered theories as to what should be done with the prison system, the extremes being retributivism and the therapeutic model, but what they all seem to have overlooked is that there is no single system that works for everyone. Blanket generalizations as to the nature of the criminal mind cannot be made. Every criminal is different, with different motivations and different psychological characteristics so that different things are required to make them repent or deter them from further criminal activity, and I believe that the solutions offered are not enough to lower the crime rate and prison population. Something needs to be done on a more fundamental level so that fewer people turn to crime in the first place, thereby providing the prison system with the freedom to improve the attention it gives to the people that do become criminals; my solution is a combination of economic reform and educational opportunity that would give people less reason to commit crimes.

The extreme right reform proposition, retributivism, is flawed mainly because it seems to assume that showing people that what they’ve done is wrong will always accomplish something, and that every prisoner can be shown that his crime was a moral wrong. This is not the case for many prisoners. There are people who steal and sell drugs simply because they have no other means of survival. There are people whose lives in the “outside world” are so terribly difficult that for them, prison life is a cushier existence than their ordinary day-to-day existence, and many of these people intentionally commit crimes so they will be arrested and thrown in jail, simply so that they can get a decent meal and a bed. For these people, even if they feel that their criminal existence is indeed a moral wrong, prison does nothing to make them repent or change their way of life. They have no choice but to steal or to sell drugs, because they have to make a living somehow, and if this is the only way they can do it then prison time will not change the way they see things. Also, there are criminals who either do not see or do not believe that what they are doing is a moral wrong, and no amount of punishment can convince them that they shouldn’t have done what they did. If they reject the categorical imperative, no punishment can change their minds; prison time is then a waste for them as well. They committed their crimes without fear of punishment, and they will continue to commit crimes after they are released, and they don’t feel any remorse. What then is the point in putting these people in jail? They are simply taking up space. Something else must be done to keep these types of people from committing criminal acts.

The extreme left proposition, or “therapeutic model,” is also flawed. Believing that criminal behavior is a psychological disorder that can be treated through therapy may be true in some cases, but certainly it cannot be proven to hold true for all. The same group of people I mentioned before is an exception to the therapeutic rule: people whose lives depend on drug sales and theft will not be changed by psychological treatment. They simply do what they have to do, and after they are released from therapy, they will go back to stealing, because they have no other way to earn a living. Then there are people who cannot be cured by any amount of psychological therapy. They will sit through the counseling sessions, perhaps play along with the therapist’s games, but once released, they will r?sum? their criminal habits. And even among those who can be positively affected by psychological treatments, there are so many different psychological disorders and personal idiosyncrasies that no single treatment plan can cure all of them. Another argument against the therapeutic model of criminal justice is this: people pay thousands of dollars a year to see psychiatrists, completely of their own accord. If people are willing to pay for this, why should they avoid committing a crime, if the only “punishment” they are likely to receive is psychological treatment? The therapeutic model is not only a poor deterrent, it has the potential to increase the crime rate. Psychiatric treatment is expensive. If one could obtain counseling for free simply by getting oneself thrown in jail, I think that many people would do so without hesitation. People who would otherwise commit no crimes could very well choose to do something they wouldn’t otherwise think of. Obviously the therapeutic model is no solution.

Other people propose a solution combining the retributive and therapeutic models of justice, which is more of a utilitarian view. They would have criminals sent to jail for their crimes, and given psychological counseling while incarcerated. This is a nice idea in theory, and the most reasonable proposition in my opinion, but the simple fact is that prisons are too overcrowded to give each prisoner the treatment he deserves. There are too many prisoners and not enough money. As a blanket solution to the problem of criminal justice reform, I agree that the utilitarian view of prisons is the most desirable policy, and that our justice system as it is now leaves a lot to be desired, but I believe that the greatest concern is not how to change criminals once they’ve already been arrested, but how to prevent them from becoming criminals in the first place.

My proposition is for society, as well as the government, to turn its attention away from prison reform and focus instead on the issues that lead people to adopt a criminal lifestyle. There are distinct environmental factors that are correlated with criminal behavior. In 1991 a third of all inmates in state prisons had been unemployed prior to their arrest, and of those who had held jobs, one fourth had only part-time jobs. In local jails 36% had been unemployed, 20% looking unsuccessfully for a job and 16% not even trying. Many of these inmates are uneducated as well: only 59% of state prison inmates had a high school diploma or its equivalent, and in local jails, this percentage dropped to a mere 54% of inmates. Two thirds of prisoners rank in the bottom two of five levels used to score the National Adult Literacy Test, compared to less than half of non-incarcerated adults; inmates are, more often than average non-incarcerated adults, less educated than their parents, and the parents of inmates are generally less educated than the parents of non-incarcerated adults in the same age range. These statistics cannot be chalked up to coincidence alone. Obviously there’s a connection between education and employment opportunities and criminality. Uneducated people, and those who cannot find a job for whatever reason, seem to be far more likely to turn to a criminal lifestyle than those with an education and a job. What I think is then the solution to the problem of skyrocketing crime rates and prison populations is increased attention to education and economic equality.

The most important factor in my solution is education. The first step that needs to be taken is to redistribute state and national tax dollars so that schools are better funded, providing children with the best teachers and educational equipment available so that they are motivated to complete their public education and can go on to be competitive in the job market after graduation from high school or college. Educated people have no real reason to turn to crime for a living, as they have the skills necessary to obtain and hold a decent job. Another part of education is to instill a moral sense in children, and while I don’t know as this can reasonably be part of a public school education, a child who is brought up with moral values will most likely refrain from serious crime on the basis of conscience alone.

Although education should provide people with the skills necessary to obtain a higher-paying job, there will still have to be people holding the lower positions in society: the sanitation workers, the truck drivers, etcetera. These people are necessary for our society to run smoothly. Not everyone can be a doctor, no matter what their level of education. Even those people may occasionally have to steal something they need, simply because their insignificant wages won’t stretch far enough to feed and care for their families. And these people are far more likely to be arrested for theft than rich doctors and lawyers. Another factor is that people below the poverty level are probably more likely to feel no remorse after stealing something, because they have suffered so many injustices in their lifetimes. Most people below the poverty level are born into the situation, and are therefore disadvantaged as far as rising above it goes because the opportunities are simply not available. They will steal the things they need and feel no sense of remorse for having cheated the upper class store owners out of a few dollars.

However, there is no reason for the economically disadvantaged people, and those in menial jobs, to have to worry about whether they have enough money for the things they want and need. If the economic system were partially leveled through governmental tax and wage regulation, not so that everyone got the same wages but so that the difference between the economic elite and the poor was not quite as drastic, no one would be forced to steal for a living, thereby eliminating a lot of criminal activity. If relative economic equality were combined with better education for children (as well as adult literacy programs), I believe that the prison population would be drastically reduced over time, and once the prisons no longer had to deal with the problem of overcrowding, they could turn their attention to those who will continue to commit crimes regardless of measures taken to prevent their ever becoming criminals. There will be the possibility of individualized attention, and those who need to be punished can be punished while those in need of psychiatric treatment can be treated accordingly. The prison system will have a lot more freedom to improve the way it treats those who do find their way through its gates, and then the crime rate can be reduced still further.

Of course this system I have proposed would take a long time to take effect on the prison populations, but I think it makes more sense than trying to attack the prison itself. No one solution will work for every prisoner; if we assume that it will, crime rates will still continue to climb exponentially as they have in recent years, and prisons will continue to overcrowd and to drain millions of our tax dollars that could be better spent on education and other things. The trend can only be reversed by attacking the root of the problem. As the old saying goes, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and this rings true for inmates as well as dogs. Train them while they’re puppies, so to speak. A well brought up child will be no more inclined to commit a crime than a well-trained dog will be to urinate on the rug. And if the crime rate is so drastically reduced, society as a whole will be greatly improved.


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