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Protesters in New York City following the non-indictment for the killing police officers who killed Eric Garner in Staten Island last year. Across the nation, writes Baskin, what we see is a criminal justice system broken from top to bottom. (Photo: AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Humanizing Justice Systems: Effective Alternative Approaches

Bob Baskin

Our criminal justice system in America is broken. Our so-called “tough on crime” laws have led to us being the most incarcerated nation in the developed world – disproportionately affecting minorities and some of our most already hard hit communities. A deeply disconcerting fact (pdf): the United States incarcerates a higher proportion of African Americans than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.  Yet at the same time, we have some of the highest levels of violence and crime.  It is clearly not an effective strategy, and is largely destructive.

Pew research has shown that if you are locking up more than 500 people per 100,000, you are actually adding to crime because we are disrupting and destabilizing so many families and communities that cannot easily recover. The national average across the US is around that rate, but there are many communities around the country that are at 2000 or even 4000 per 100,000. This is devastating to these communities.  We must do better, and we can do better.

While it is encouraging to hear the swiftly growing chorus of elected leaders, from both sides of the aisle, speaking about the need for criminal justice reform -- particularly in the wake of Ferguson, Baltimore, etc. -- we have much work to do to move our federal, state and local laws away from these largely ineffective strategies towards more progressive models that can bring healing and repair to lives and to our communities.  


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We are seeing a plethora of cost-effective and evidence-based approaches to implementing justice in society that focus more on healing harm done, rather than simply punishing it. These approaches are proving to work better than our current methodologies. A couple of encouraging examples:

After the Longmont Community Justice Partnership (in Longmont, Colorado) implemented its Community Restorative Justice Program, recidivism rates dropped to less than 8% in its first three years (pdf). National averages can reach 65% recidivism rates, or higher.

In a West Philadelphia High School, within two years of implementing a Restorative Discipline program, incidents of assault and disorderly conduct dropped more than 65%.

The following empowering strategies and programs are proving to be quite effective in the realm of humanizing justice:

Early Intervention: Engaging at risk youth early and providing them with support needed to be successful in life can build them into strong, productive members of their communities before they fall into cycles of violence, incarceration, and despair. This can be accomplished through mentoring programs, at home family support, after school programs, and many other positive interventions.

Restorative Justice: We seek approaches to justice that provide an effective process and container for the development of understanding between offenders and victims as well as the wider community. It provides the conditions, guided by victims, for the possibility of healing, forgiveness and restoration. The nature of a restorative process guided by victims' needs allows for offenders to come to terms with the human cost of their actions and attempts to right the wrong together with all stakeholders. This often is freeing to victims, as well, and a key aspect of their own ability to move forward. In laying the foundations for empathy, restorative justice can and has radically changed lives, prevented crime and recidivism, and rebuilt communities. Working programs in the US have shown astounding success in reducing recidivism, saving time and judicial expense, while preventing incarceration and its associated costs.

Smarter Sentencing Act: The Smarter Sentencing Act would reduce a variety of mandatory minimums to reduce unjustifiable disparities in sentencing and to reduce sentences for low risk offenders.

Trauma-Informed Justice and Courts: An increasing body of evidence tells us that the majority of people in jails and prisons have experienced trauma that has scarred their minds and hearts. They may have survived rape, assault, or childhood sexual abuse, or they may have witnessed violence done to others. The experiences that trauma survivors have in the criminal justice system, far from leading them to positive changes in their lives, often add new trauma and deepen their wounds. Many will never be able to break out of the narrow trajectory that constricts their futures unless the justice system and their communities can help them to focus on the root problem: trauma, its lasting effects in human lives, and the need to begin the healing process.

Smarter Sentencing Act: The Smarter Sentencing Act would reduce a variety of mandatory minimums to reduce unjustifiable disparities in sentencing and to reduce sentences for low risk offenders.

Creating a trauma-informed environment within the juvenile justice system is especially important considering research has demonstrated that many of the youths involved in the juvenile justice system have been exposed to traumatic events.

Smarter Sentencing Act: The Smarter Sentencing Act would reduce a variety of mandatory minimums to reduce unjustifiable disparities in sentencing and to reduce sentences for low risk offenders.

Prisoner rehabilitation and re-entry support: When incarceration is necessary, it is critical that offenders are treated with essential human dignity and given the best chance possible to return to their communities as full members of society, with life skills, job skills and equal opportunities for employment. We support programs in prisons that provide life-skills, that teach inmates emotional literacy, how to better communicate, resolve conflict and deal with emotional and psychological issues. These support modalities have been shown to help transform lives.

Prisons must also be places that provide support and education to prisoners so they are able to care for themselves through productive employment upon release. Returning citizens must have access to supportive programming upon release to ease their transition and to prevent recidivism.

Community Policing: Community policing is, in essence, a collaboration between the police and the community that identifies and solves community problems. All members of the community become active allies in the effort to enhance the safety and quality of neighborhoods through communication.

Diversionary Approaches: Pre-trial and pre-charge diversion support approaches allow low risk offenders to move into programs that address their behavior without saddling them with a conviction, having life-long ramifications, or sending them to a prison where they are often driven further into a harmful lifestyle.

Juvenile Justice: The Juvenile Justice system must take into account the differences in brain development between youth and adults, and treat youth differently. The juvenile justice system needs to provide support in the community whenever possible, reserving incarceration, which is far more harmful to youth than adults, for only the most extreme cases if at all.

Mediation: Mediation is a form of alternative dispute resolution, a way of resolving disputes between two or more parties with concrete effects. Typically, a third party, the mediator, assists the parties to negotiate a settlement. Mediators use various techniques to open, or improve, dialogue and empathy between disputants, helping the parties reach an agreement.

All of the above are in play to various degrees in communities around the nation. They have not reached anywhere near the scale that is needed. Here are a few policy proposals that could help in the short term to move us more swiftly towards these approaches.  

Youth PROMISE Act: The Youth Prison Reduction through Opportunity, Mentoring, Intervention, Support and Education (Youth PROMISE) Act would reduce youth violence by enabling inclusive groups of local stakeholders to determine the needs of their own communities and to address those needs with a suite of accountable, evidence based programs. It is locally controlled, accountable, saves money, and it works.

Redeem Act: The Redeem Act would make sealing and expungement simpler for people returning from incarceration, and would remove legal obstacles preventing them from accessing the social support structures critical to helping them reintegrate into society.

Second Chance Re-authorization Act: The Second Chance Act was first passed in 2007, and has used evidence based reentry programs to help those returning from incarceration reintegrate into the community. It has reduced recidivism and saved significant amounts of money.

Full Funding for Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention Act: This is essential in ensuring that state juvenile justice programs offer the young people involved the supports necessary for successful rehabilitation and re-entry into their communities.

Smarter Sentencing Act: The Smarter Sentencing Act would reduce a variety of mandatory minimums to reduce unjustifiable disparities in sentencing and to reduce sentences for low risk offenders.

This "Humanizing Justice Systems Peacebuilding Cornerstone” is part of a new national initiative from The Peace Alliance entitled Be the Movement! Take a Step for Peace: In Your Life, In Our Communities, among Nations. You can learn more about humanizing Justice here, including: statistics on what is working and where the challenges are, links to great organizations and programs around the nation as well as ways you can get invovled to help make it happen.

Smarter Sentencing Act: The Smarter Sentencing Act would reduce a variety of mandatory minimums to reduce unjustifiable disparities in sentencing and to reduce sentences for low risk offenders.

It is time for us to embark on a new course forward, towards a justice that repairs harm done, instead of simply punishing. It’s more sane, more effective and more humane.  

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Bob Baskin

Bob Baskin is president of The Peace Alliance, a national grassroots educational and advocacy organization focused on transforming how individuals, communities, and nations respond to conflict and violence.

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