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National View: Instead of reducing incarceration, reduce crime

Both political parties are uniting behind criminal-justice reform. This is both promising and discouraging. It's promising because our justice system needs change and improvement, but it's discouraging because current efforts employ the same musty pattern as previous attempts.

Ed BarajasProposed solutions are focused on the wrong problem. Their goal is reducing incarceration rather than creating safer communities. Imagine health care reform focused on reducing hospitalization rather than on increasing public health. In both cases, the cart is before the horse. Reduced incarceration and hospitalization follow safer and healthier communities.

Our current system has a basic design flaw. It's reactive, only kicking in after a crime occurs. It's time we stop debating about the best reactive responses to individual criminal behavior and begin addressing crime.

We need a justice system that proactively confronts and prevents crime, thereby reducing victimization rather than reducing recidivism. The two are not one and the same. Recidivism doesn't gauge community safety. A person can escape arrest and detention while continuing to victimize the community. And yet, parole officers are trained not to revoke offenders until they kill or seriously harm someone in order to improve the agency's "success rates." This elevates the agency but fails the community.

Reducing crime reduces incarceration, but much is recklessly gambled trying to prove that it's the other way around.

A justice transformation has been occurring for more than 20 years, but politicians seem to be clueless. Nationally, justice agencies working with citizens, social service agencies, and faith groups have reclaimed entire neighborhoods once considered hopeless. Consequently, the national crime rate has plummeted during this time. These changes resulted without passing more laws but because the system changed its policies and practices and worked collaboratively toward a common goal.

The momentum of revolutionary change must not be impeded by misguided actions that fundamentally change nothing. Current policies and proposals ignore communities and citizens as focal points of the effort. An army of "experts" provides policymakers with answers. But ineffective policy results from never asking the right questions.

We're bombarded with claims that incarceration is our primary response to crime and that we spend more on prisons than on schools and other vital services. Is this really true? According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Minnesota has about 87 percent of its corrections population in alternatives to incarceration (community supervision) rather than locked up. The national average is about 70 percent. In addition, Minnesota spent 42 percent of its budget, or more than $8 billion, on education in 2016. By contrast, the Minnesota general fund appropriation for prisons in 2018 was $427.515 million within a total corrections allocation of $585 million, or about 1.5 percent of the state's overall budget.

Nationally, we now spend about $85 billion on corrections compared to about $1 trillion on education. In a free society, that's the way things should be. What's needed is a community-driven process.

Traditional change efforts are a top-down reformation that requires passing new laws. This merely puts a new paint job on the old clunker and only results in pendulum swings that eventually require more reforms. What's needed is a bottom-up system transformation.

The system must take a truly systemic approach and work with its components and citizens to solve problems at the neighborhood level. Organizations can merely change their policies and practices instead of requiring new legislation. Citizens must become "co-producers of justice" with an active role in the process. Taxpayers own the system but have become absentee landlords. A just system is focused on doing justice on behalf of everyone, including offenders. This is what must change.

Ed Barajas of Cornelius, N.C., is retired from the Federal Bureau of Prisons after 27 years, including 12 years in maximum-security penitentiaries. He is the author of "The Quiet Revolution: Shattering the Myths about the American Criminal Justice System." He wrote this for the News Tribune.