Although we are currently living in the safest time in human history, it doesn’t always feel that way. With mainstream and social media feasting on fear, it seems like dangerous crimes are everywhere. What can we do to make us even safer? The goal should be to have as little violent crime as possible, while making sure justice is served. To do this, we must first remember that the goal is criminal justice, not criminal punishment.
The purpose of prison is not to teach lessons, and it rarely corrects bad behavior—it simply punishes lawbreakers. We need to start thinking of our justice system as just that: a system of justice, not punishment, in which prisons, police, and the laws themselves are used to pursue actual justice.
According to the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, they are responsible for the confinement and habitation of 53,000 people in custody and 36,000 on parole. Nationally, there are over 2.2 million people incarcerated in both jails and prisons. Are there really that many criminals in New York and across the country? Or are people being confined for committing nonviolent crimes or unknowingly violating statutes? We can easily reduce the prison population by creating fewer criminals in the first place: by repealing bloated legislation and decriminalizing nonviolent and victimless offenses.
Many “crimes” should not be considered as such. The Libertarian Party supports the idea that only the use of force and fraud should be criminal. One way to reform what characterizes a criminal is mens rea reform. Mens rea is the idea that criminal intent occurred at the time of the wrongdoing. Currently, the extent of evidence that needs to be proven to show criminal intent varies.
The Mens Rea Reform Act of 2017 (which is supported by the Federal Defenders of New York) was introduced in early October by Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) to raise the requirements for prosecutors to prove criminal intent for a conviction of federal crimes. Often, the justice system operates on the principle that ignorance of the law is not an excuse for breaking a law; this makes no sense given the sheer number of laws on the books, and, according to the CATO Institute, this definition of “criminal” should be rejected. This would be a great first step to decreasing the number of incarcerated individuals.
Another element of the criminal justice system in need of reform is the prison system. National jail populations are rising, including in New York. In New York state, 70% of county jail inmates have not even been convicted yet. There are too many people who are not a threat to public safety in cages because they cannot afford a cash bail. Biased risk assessments are keeping people in jail unnecessarily. And if someone is unable to afford bail, it affects their ability to maintain employment during their jail stay. When their trial ends, they have no job to go back to. This hurts the most disadvantaged people in society.
Although there are no private prisons in New York state, private prisons in the rest of the nation are currently paid per inmate, which creates an incentive for prisons to put more people behind bars, whether they deserve to be there or not. Instead, prisons should only get paid when they house dangerous criminals and when non-violent prisoners are rehabilitated, released, and rejoin society (similar to recruiting companies, as Larry Sharpe states). This is not currently happening, as recidivism rates are extremely high.
New York City claims to want to help inmates rehabilitate back into society. For example, there has been a proposal for NYC Artist Residencies. The money would be used to help rehabilitate and resocialize prisoners through art. It sounds nice, but it is difficult to see how it would help. Art is a wonderful healing tool, but it’s not a practical way to get criminals the real help they need. That money could be put toward education to help them get back into the lawful workforce.
Right now, prisons around the country are profiting from the suffering of many citizens, especially those who struggle with substance abuse and addiction. True rehabilitation of these inmates would entail treating drug problems as medical issues, not crimes. The War on Drugs does nothing to help addiction or abuse. Alcohol prohibition did not work; Marijuana prohibition does not work. Prohibition does not curb sales or use of any drug. Not only does this war kill and jail too many good people, it is a waste of time and money for police officers to enforce. If prisons start educating inmates and treating addiction as a health issue, we would start to see recidivism rates decrease.
Law enforcement reform is also needed. As the martial arm of the criminal justice system, this is a crucial aspect of promoting justice over punishment. Body cameras make transparency possible (but we do need to be careful about how we use technology so as to not infringe on privacy rights). Police need to be held accountable for errors in judgement, including the use of violent force against the accused. Many issues must be resolved at the federal level, but as a state, New York can effect meaningful change for the training and accountability of our police force, ensuring that justice is served in police-civilian interactions. For example, civil asset forfeiture laws can be changed at the state level.
Civil asset forfeiture is a process in which law enforcement seizes money or property from an accused person before he or she is convicted of a crime. This is a very controversial process, as most state laws on asset forfeiture encourage law enforcement officers to profit from the property taken. We expect our law enforcement to remain neutral entities in the judicial process, but reports of widespread corruption show that this is not the reality.
For example, the NYPD claims they have not backed up data detailing $68 million in forfeited assets, and have therefore been unable to give property back to those they have taken it from. Not only that, but the “NYPD is supposed to return property seized during an arrest once a criminal case ends, so long as the person has a signed release from prosecutors. But public defenders say these requests are often ignored without consequence.” In this case, the law itself is at odds with justice. Civil asset forfeiture is legalized theft, and reform is needed. The process of recouping property needs to be much easier—or, better yet, law enforcement should stop taking property from the accused before conviction.
Another major problem specifically in New York with the criminal justice system is perjuring police officers. Cops are lying under oath to justify unnecessary arrests made to meet quotas. First, there should not be quotas set for arrests, as this only incentivizes police officers to make petty arrests that can ruin lives. Second, we need to trust officers to be honest about important cases, and cops lying about petty crimes undermines our entire judicial process. Quotas and petty-offense policing open the door to harassment and civil rights violations, which works against the goal of justice. And there is already evidence that reform of this nature works. When NYPD did a slowdown in petty law enforcement as a form of protest, major crime complaints were down. By simply reducing the aggressive policing of minor statutes, the number of serious crimes in the community fell.
We must get back to the idea of criminal justice, not criminal punishment. We need to rethink the definition of crime and how prisons and police precincts make a profit. Take a look at what Larry Sharpe has to say about criminal justice reform on his issues page: http://www.larrysharpe.com/issues.