Criminal justice reform is a good idea, but every idea of how to make the reform is not a good idea. The system we have now is dangerously dysfunctional, but the Obama administration, and many of its friends on the left seem to think there’s no good reason to imprison anyone, except for the occasional businessman in trouble with regulators.
Prosecutorial misconduct, unusually harsh sentences and overcrowded prisons are genuine problems, but so is crime. There are real criminals out there.
Pat Nolan, who worked for years with the late Chuck Colson in the thankless and necessary job to advocate for humane prisons, once observed that “our prisons are full of people we are mad at, when they should be reserved for those we have good reason to fear.”
The solution, obviously, is to keep in mind the difference, to find alternative punishment where possible for those who merely anger society, and think twice before dangerous criminals are sent back to the streets to prey on the innocent.
Instead, many who demand reform of the dysfunctional criminal justice system think that even the most violent should get a second or even third opportunity to go straight. Reducing the population of the prisons appears to be the goal, even if it means freeing gangbangers, armed robbers and rapists.
Many jurisdictions, in their haste to do good, endanger the public and abuse their cause by releasing violent criminals whom society rightly fears. The dilemma is compounded when states and other jurisdictions release prisoners who have served their terms without doing much to assist their return to freedom. The District of Columbia should be the model for such jurisdictions, but it isn’t. There’s very little help for those deemed worthy of “the second chance”
The Mayor’s Office of Returning Citizen Affairs, which was established to assist returning prisoners, hasn’t done much assisting. The office of the District of Columbia’s inspector general says the city has failed its mission, and the nation’s capital is a tough city to return to. There are few good and positive places to live, few jobs, and little help for those trying to resist the temptation to return to a life of crime.
The District’s failure, tough as it may be for returning criminals who have served their time (and including some who have no real desire to go straight), can be tougher still on those who live and work in the city. The reformers, whose work is needed, must keep this clearly in mind.