A New Path for Reform: Fuse Social Justice with Criminal Justice

A “reimagined” justice system that shifts from punishment to social justice as its central operating principle can be the most effective long-term means of ending the harms inflicted by the current system on millions of Americans, according to Bruce Western, one of the nation’s leading experts on mass incarceration.

A “reimagined” justice system that shifts from punishment to social justice as its central operating principle can be the most effective long-term means of ending the harms inflicted by the current system on millions of Americans, according to one of the nation’s leading experts on mass incarceration.

Bruce Western

Bruce Western

Bruce Western, a professor of sociology at Columbia University and co-director of the Columbia Justice Lab, argues that while the justice reform movement to date has moved many courts, correctional institutions and law enforcement agencies away from the hardline strategies of recent decades, fundamental change requires policymakers to “cut the connections between incarceration, poverty and racial inequality.”

That involves, in turn, thinking “outside of traditional justice agencies,” Western wrote in a paper released as part of Square One, a multi-disciplinary project aimed at generating new ideas about justice reform.

“A reimagined justice system will concede some jurisdiction to other agencies—departments of housing, child services, public health, education and labor [so that] criminal justice becomes social justice, and the goals of promoting safety and reducing the harms of violence are continuous with providing order, predictability, and material security in daily life.”

Square One was launched last fall by Arnold Ventures (formerly the Laura and John Arnold Foundation) and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.  Western’s paper was the first of a set of papers released under the auspices of  Square’s One’s “Executive Session on the Future of Justice Policy,” which has assembled about two dozen researchers, practitioners, policy makers, advocates, and community representatives to meet periodically and “generate and cultivate new ideas” for reforming the system.

Western noted that despite the impressive reductions in incarceration rates—from a peak of 762 people per 100,000 in 2007 to 695 people per 100,000 in 2018—the U.S. still imprisoned more individuals than any other country in the world, with some 2.17 million behind bars and another 4.85 million on probation and parole (according to 2018 figures).

The victims of what he called the “punitive revolution” that took shape in the 1980s were overwhelmingly— and disproportionately— black, male and poor.

‘Vast Apparatus’ For Punishment

Only a fundamental transformation of government policy can reverse a justice system that has become “a vast apparatus organized to punish, exclude and close off opportunities,” Western wrote.

He said the rethinking needed to begin by “settling accounts” with America’s history of systemic racial oppression that grew out of slavery, and has continued in various and more subtle forms ever since—most importantly by forcing people of color into an endless loop of housing and educational segregation, poverty, crime and constricted employment opportunities.

“Of all the different ways that policymakers could have responded to the problem of crime, a course was chosen that greatly curtailed the liberty of a segment of the population who have had to fight for their freedom from the beginning,” Western wrote.

But economic inequity is the principal driver of today’s dysfunctional system, he added, noting that “inequalities in criminal punishment have grown most along economic, not racial lines.”

According to Western, the only way to break the cycle, therefore, is to replace punishment with a “socially integrative” approach, which he defined as creating conditions in America’s poorest communities for families and individuals to prosper and develop the kind of social “connections” that provide economic security and public safety.

Grassroots Change

Although this seemed to imply major new public investment in housing, schools and employment, Western focused on grassroots policy changes that involved local justice agencies developing close partnerships with community services and institutions working with at-risk individuals and families.

For instance, “in the aftermath of violence, our courts and correctional agencies should help rebuild the social membership of victims and offenders alike—both of whom have been alienated from the social compact by violence.”

Other changes such as ending money bail, reforming probation and parole, and reducing the burden of court fines and fees on the justice-involved were also important tools for reform, he wrote.

But, added Western, most important of all was changing the social and economic framework under which the justice system currently operates in order for the various strands of reform ideas to take root.

“With social integration as a basic principle of justice reform, we can revisit the libertarian, scientific and ethical reform impulses of the current period,” he wrote.

Western’s paper is available for downloading here.

from https://thecrimereport.org

After Prison, Coming Home Can be the Toughest Ordeal of All

Prison is often just a stop along the road for individuals who have been struggling with victimization all their lives, says Bruce Western, author of a new book exploring returning inmates’ experiences. That’s why the justice system should rethink its approach to who it punishes—and how—he argued during a talk in New York Thursday.

Prison is often just a stop along the road for individuals who have been struggling with victimization all their lives, says Harvard sociologist Bruce Western.

Western, author of the recently released Homeward: Life in the Year After Prison, said he was shocked by the findings of his own research showing the amount of violence many inmates had experienced long before they were incarcerated.

homeward bound“In a world that is so saturated with issues of moral complexity, our criminal justice winds up piling punishment upon people who are the most disadvantaged and have very serious histories of victimization,” Western said.

Western, the Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Professor of Criminal Justice Policy at Harvard University and a co-director of the Columbia Justice Lab, was speaking at a discussion of his book Thursday.

He was joined by Khalil Cumberbatch and Vivian Nixon, two former inmates who are among the leaders of the prison reform movement. Both said that the help available to them immediately after their release was crucial to their successful reentry to civilian society.

Vivian Nixon

Vivian Nixon

“I have a wonderful career that I love now, but it’s because I had that support when I got out,” said Nixon, executive director of the College and Community Fellowship.“And I attached that support to opportunity.”

She considers herself lucky to have had family support after serving a four-year sentence, but added it still took her 18 months to find work after being released.

Khalil Cumberbatch, associate vice president of policy at the Fortune Society, served a 6 ½ year sentence and took advantage of in-prison programs offered before release.

Bruce Western

Bruce Western

“People told me, ‘If you wait until the day you get out of prison to talk about your game plan, you’ve already lost,’” Cumberbatch said. “The real ‘game’ begins after you are released.”

According to Western, returning inmates faced systemic disadvantages that often imperiled their ability to lead productive lives. His research, conducted in the Greater Boston area, focused on men and women leaving state prisons in Massachusetts.

But he found that economic security was crucial to their ability to stay out of future trouble with the law, noting that many individuals were simply “leaving prison for poverty.”

He argued that the criminal justice system needed to be more conscious of the life experiences of offenders before and after their prison term. Although in the popular mind there was a clear line between victims and perpetrators of violence, many individuals experienced both roles.

“It always boggled my mind that the rest of the world didn’t know how poor people lived, and especially how poor black people lived,” said Nixon, who grew up in a housing project in Long Island.

Khalil Cumberbatch

Khalil Cumberbatch

“Violence was the norm, frailty was the norm, and constant discrimination was also the norm. Even though it was common to me to understand this was how we lived, not everyone grew up like that.”

Western, one of the nation’s foremost scholars on incarceration issues, said he had once thought statistics on incarceration, reentry and recidivism would speak for themselves in arguments for justice reform.

He said he wrote his new book to bring the human cost of incarceration closer to home.

Nixon agreed.

“The way we use mega-data in our society dehumanizes us all,” she said. “We can all fit into some category of mega-data, whether positive or negative, and that does not tell the entire story of who we are.”

Marianne Dodson is a TCR news intern. Readers’ comments are welcome.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Want to Shrink Our Prisons? Fix Probation and Parole

Over 4.7 million Americans are under “community corrections” supervision today—more than twice the number of individuals behind bars. Rethinking that 19th-century approach is crucial if we want to end mass incarceration, say the authors of a Harvard Kennedy School paper released today.

In our nation’s expanding discussion about eliminating mass incarceration, advocates, researchers and the media are missing a major contributor to incarcerated populations and a partial deprivation of liberty in its own right.

Mass supervision through probation and parole.

Grouped under the category of “community corrections,” America’s probation and parole systems originated in the 19th century as Progressive-era rehabilitative alternatives to incarceration. But they have effectively become feeder systems for imprisonment.

Today, with a caseload of over 4.7 million—one out of every 52 U.S. adults—community corrections agencies supervise more than twice as many people as the 2.2 million Americans behind bars.

Bruce Western

What’s worse, every year, almost as many people enter our prisons, not because of a conviction for a new crime, but because of a violation of some condition of probation or parole.

That is why, over the past three years, a group of prosecutors, law enforcement officials, corrections and community corrections leaders, formerly incarcerated people, service providers, philanthropists and researchers have been meeting in an Executive Session at the Harvard Kennedy School to discuss what went wrong with community corrections, and what can be done to fix it.

Toward that end, the Executive Session created an unprecedented consensus paper that includes 13 proposals to reduce the footprint of community corrections, have it hew more toward justice, and make it more effective in protecting the community and empowering people to turn their lives around.

There was strong agreement with the conclusion that “America’s community corrections systems do not live up to the core principles of providing well-being and safety, parsimony (no more punishment than is needed to achieve the goals of sentencing) and justice, successful community integration, victim restoration, and respect for human dignity.”

The paper went on to declare:

“Rather than serving as an alternative to, or release valve from, imprisonment, community corrections has become a contributing factor to incarceration’s growth…Major changes are needed to make our system smaller and more focused, less punitive, more humane, and more widely guided by best practices. It will be impossible to meaningfully reduce mass incarceration in America without solving the challenges of community corrections and fulfilling its initial purpose and promise.”

The paper’s proposals include moving “from mass supervision to focused supervision” and “from punishing failure to promoting success.”

Besides the principle of refraining from unnecessary state supervision, there were some practical arguments for reducing the criminal justice footprint. Indeed, shrinking probation and parole supervision, and focusing it on those most in need, can have results that some might find surprising.

When New York City reduced its use of probation by 69% from 1996 to 2014, public safety was not compromised. Half as many New Yorkers went to jail and prison during that time period (a trend that has even accelerated since), and violent crime fell city-wide by 57%.

Likewise, when Arizona policymakers created incentives for people on probation to earn time off their terms for complying with court-ordered conditions and gave probation departments fiscal incentives to reduce probation revocations, new felony convictions amongst people on probation fell by 31% and revocations to prison fell by 28%.

Vincent Schiraldi

The Executive Session also found that the “community” is often absent from “community corrections,” as too many interactions between staff and people under supervision occur across a desk in an unfriendly, citadel-like and out-of-the-way government office. As such, the Executive Session recommended that community corrections move “from isolated to integrated” and “from fortress to community-based.”

Despite the fact that research shows that communities are safer if they are more cohesive and people do better under supervision when it is viewed as fair and legitimate, too much of what passes for probation and parole supervision amounts to an exercise in “trail ‘em, nail ‘em, and jail ‘em.”

To combat this mentality, the Georgia Department of Community Supervision did away with its staff offices, so now parole officers meet with their charges in clients’ neighborhoods. New York City partnered with non-profit organizations so people on probation now see their probation officers in supportive locations in their own neighborhoods like drug treatment programs, organizations designed to help formerly incarcerated people with reentry and even YMCAs.

Community corrections too often neglects community— and fails to correct.

If America is to truly rid itself of mass incarceration, we have to make our probation and parole systems more integrative, less reflexively punitive, and pillars of the just principles of a democratic society.

Editor’s Note: This week is national Pretrial, Probation and Parole Supervision Week. For more information please read here.

Bruce Western is Chair of the Harvard Kennedy School Program in Criminal Justice (PCJ) and Principal Investigator of the Executive Session on Community Corrections. Vincent Schiraldi is a Senior Research Fellow at PCJ and former Commissioner of New York City Probation. They welcome comments from readers.

from https://thecrimereport.org