~~* Paul's Justice Blog - launched July 4 *~~

What Every American Should Know About the Criminal Justice System

This page was originally created by the National Commission on Institutions and Alternatives, although this extremely helpful resource is no longer available on their website. The webmaster of StopViolence has done some editing and provided additional links to information beyond this page. (Original page available in archive.org for comparison)

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How to Read Crime Rate Statistics

Statistics are tricky. For every statistic designed to enlighten, there is a statistic designed to mislead. The problem for the American public is to distinguish tricky statistics from accurate statistics. This section is designed to help people to understand how crime rates are measured so they can draw their own conclusions from statements in the news.

There are two major methods of measuring crime in America: the National Crime Victimization Survey and the F.B.I. Uniform Crime Reports. These measurements often yield different results. The Bureau of Justice Statistics has some information on the Nation's Two Measures of Crime

The National Crime Survey (NCS) is considered more accurate by criminologists. The NCS is a telephone poll conducted in the same manner as professional market surveys. A representative sample of households are telephoned and asked questions such as: Were you the victim of a crime last year? What was the crime? Did you report it to the police? 

Because it is a survey based on a sample, there is no information about crime in geographic regions (states, cities, etc). But it does help identify how much crime goes unreported to police and recent changes in the questionnaire and interview procedures have made it a better measure of domestic violence and sexual assault. 

NCS data is available through the Dept of Justice Victimization page. The Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics has information from the NCS and UCR in Section III - Nature and Distribution of Known Offenses.

The Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) are tabulated by the FBI on the basis of arrest reports from local police departments nationwide. Criminologists view these statistics with suspicion because they are related to local police practices, so computerization of record keeping, pro-arrest policies, or emphasizing informal resolutions can affect the 'crime rate' but affecting the number of reports about crime. Even the UCR documentation indicates it is as much a measure of police behavior than 'crime.'

In addition, police records cannot be compared across jurisdictions. Police departments that pursue aggressive arrest policies or that keep careful records of arrests will appear to have more crime than departments that reserve arrests for serious crimes or that devote less attention to paperwork- even if both districts have the same amount of crime.

The chief exception is homicide, a crime that is so serious it is virtually always reported by civilians and virtually always recorded carefully by the police. Thus, the UCR measures homicide more reliably than it measures other crimes. 

The FBI's report, Crime in the U.S. is available through fbi.gov

Arrests are one of the worst sources of measuring crime rates because they are so intimately linked with police department practices. One department may choose an aggressive arrest strategy, while another department may choose to reserve arrest for serious offenses. One department may choose to arrest on any degree of suspicion, another department may choose not to arrest unless the suspicion is confirmed, corroborated, or of extremely high quality. One department may be overstaffed, another may be understaffed. All of these variables will produce different arrest rates. By and large, arrest rates have increased in recent years as police departments have grown, but this does not necessarily indicate higher crime.

How to manipulate crime rates: Politicians manipulate crime rate statistics by choosing their measures and choosing their years. Sometimes to justify larger budgets and more money, police or politicians need to show there's a 'crime problem,' and want to present high numbers for crime. At other times, they need to demonstrate that their policies are effective at reducing crime, so they want to present lower numbers. 

If you want to show that crime went up, use the UCR because the improvements in record keeping make it look like crime increased through to about 1990. If you want to show really huge increases, use 1960 as a baseline year because the baby boomers were still babies and police record keeping was incomplete.

If you want to make it look like crime went down, use a relatively high crime year like 1980 or 1990 and compare it to a relatively low crime year. Or put a crime like burglary into the trend, because it consistently decreased through the 1980s.

FAQ on UCR from FBI.gov. William Chambliss' book Power, Politics and Crime (2000) offers a very critical look at the manipulation of crime rate statistics. 


Basic Facts About the Criminal Justice System (size, racial disparity, effectiveness)

Q: How big is the criminal justice system?
A: Bigger than it has ever been, bigger than any comparable nation's

  • The number of people locked up has quadrupled since 1980. There are 2 million people in prisons and jails nationwide. An additional 4.7 million people are on probation or parole. (See Dept of Justice 'Corrections' page for updates and details) The Pew Center study released a study showing about 1 in 100 Americans are now behind bars
  • There are 11.5 million admissions to prison or jail annually. (FBI). Every year, more people are arrested than the entire combined populations of our 13 least populous states.
  • America incarcerates five times as many people per capita as Canada and 7 times as many as most European democracies; the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, indicating we are not 'soft on crime.' (See World Prison Brief, International Centre for Prison Studies, Kings College, London)
  • America spends approximately 200 billion dollars a year on the criminal justice system, up from 12 billion in 1972. (Dept of Justice Current CJ Expenditures). Please keep in mind these underestimate the full cost of CJ because some costs like prison construction are counted as capital expenditures under a different budget from CJ. 
  • The federal and state governments spend more than $60 billion on Corrections. According to the Public Safety Performance Study done by the Pew Charitable Trusts, and spending will need to increase another $27.5 billion from 2007-2011 to keep up with increasing populations. [see brief overview from pewpublicsafety.org or full report (52 page adobe.pdf)]
  • With 2.2 million people engaged in catching criminals and putting and keeping them behind bars, "corrections" has become one of the largest sectors of the U.S. economy, employing more people than the combined workforces of General Motors, Ford and Wal-Mart, the three biggest corporate employers in the country. [America's Prison Habit, by Alan Elsner, Washington Post 24 January 2004; Page A19] 
Q: Is our system so big because we have so much crime?
A: No.
  • America's overall crime rates are similar to comparable nations. For the crime of assault, 2.2% of Americans are victimized each year, compared to 2.3% of Canadians and 2.8% of Australians. For car theft, the U.S. rate is 2.3%, Australia is at 2.7% and England is at 2.8%. 
  • America is extraordinary only in its rate of homicide with guns - lethal violence. American gun homicide rates run twenty times the rate in comparable nations- causing Americans to live in fear that their counterparts in England and France do not share.
Q: Why is the system so big if not because of high crime?
A: Because of our exceedingly harsh treatment of lesser crimes
  • We quadrupled the prison population since 1980, but much of the increase in admissions involved non-violent offenses, especially drugs.
  • The system is so big because America punishes lesser offenses so frequently and so severely. Other nations reserve prison for serious or violent offenders. America sends millions of people to jail every year for minor crimes like trespassing, disorderly conduct, non-DWI traffic offenses, and simple possession of small amounts of illegal drugs for personal use.
  • 88% of offenses nationwide are non-violent. Only 3% of all crime results in an injury. Homicide arrests constitute just 0.2% of all arrests in America. (FBI - UCR, section 2).
  • Violent crime does not drive our criminal justice system, the war on drugs does. Other nations keep their justice systems under control by handling drug addiction as a social and medical problem, not a criminal justice problem.
  • In the federal prison system, one in five prisoners is a "low-level drug law violator," defined as "non-violent offenders with minimal or no prior criminal history, whose offense did not involve sophisticated criminal activity and who otherwise did not present negative characteristics which would preclude consideration for sentence modification." The full federal tax burden of four average families is needed to for each such prisoner. See The Sentencing Project (Issues or Publications; take a look at the Fact Sheets)
"Chief Justice William Rehnquist isn't exactly soft on crime. So when he takes the uncommon step of publicly opposing a bill aimed at lengthening prison sentences, you'd expect Congress to pay attention. Instead, both the House and the Senate have voted overwhelmingly for legislation that threatens to strip federal judges of much of their discretion to give prison terms shorter than those in the federal sentencing guidelines.

"Attached as an amendment to the "Amber Alert" bill, a popular measure establishing a nationwide system to locate missing children, the changes passed with only 25 dissenting votes in the House and none in the Senate. Last week, President Bush signed the bill into law. So much for the chief justice, who was essentially ignored when he warned that the bill "would seriously impair the ability of courts to impose just and responsible sentences." 

With No Sentencing Leeway, What's Left to Judge? By Emily Bazelon (Washington Post, 4 May 2003; Page B 04)

"Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said today that prison terms are too long and that he favors scrapping the practice of setting mandatory minimum sentences for some federal crimes.

"'Our resources are misspent, our punishments too severe, our sentences too long,' Kennedy said in remarks prepared for delivery to the annual meeting of the American Bar Association. 

Justice Criticizes Sentencing Guidelines (Washington Post, 10 Aug 2003; Page A 08

See also The Rich Get Richer & the Poor Get Prison, Summary of Chapter 1. 


Q: Do prisons reduce crime?
A: No.

  • Prisons are part of a comprehensive crime-fighting regime, but they are only a small component. Excessive reliance on prisons brings little additional safety. Imprisonment occurs long after the crime has been committed and mostly incapacitates an offender from committing more crimes against people on the outside. It does not prevent crime and inmates frequently come out of prison worse than they went in, with few additional skills or pro-social behavior. 
  • Overall, high rates of incarceration have little or no correlation to rates of crime. States with high rates of incarceration may or may not have high rates of crime. States with low rates of crime may or may not have high rates of incarceration. Similarly, states that embark on massive prison construction programs may or may not show declines in crime.
  • Most people admitted to prison or jail serve short sentences for minor crimes. The sentence does little to effect the underlying reasons for the criminal behavior- so little prevents them from reverting to the same behavior after release. 
  • A person in prison cannot commit crimes in the street, but somebody else is usually willing to take the incarcerated person's place on the street (a replacement effect) - especially in the context of drug crimes. When people are released (usually a few years later), they are often worse off for the experience of having been in prison, which makes the streets less safe.
  • The best that can be said is that the enormous increase in law enforcement caused a marginal decrease in crime. The worst that can be said is that the expansion did nothing for crime but caused terrible collateral harm on society by draining money and ruining lives. Indeed, states cut money for crime prevention and education to build prisons, a non-sustainable policy akin to mopping the floor while the tub overflows

Lynch and Sabol, Prison use and Social Control discusses in more detail research examining how mass incarceration undermines informal social controls (family and community); it has a discussion of incarceration effects, models of weakened informal social control processes, and a review of empirical evidence. 

Q: Are there racial disparities in the criminal justice system?
A: Yes.
  • Relative to their populations, there are seven times as many minorities in prison as whites. (BJS).
  • Nationwide, one in three young black men is under the supervision of the criminal justice system. (Mauer). In many cities, half the young black are under the control of the criminal justice system. In Baltimore the figure is 56%; in D.C. it is 42%. (NCIA). In a single year in Los Angeles, one third of the young African American men spend time behind bars. (NCCD).
  • By the time they reach the age of 35, nearly eight in ten black men can expect to have been arrested, making arrest one of the unifying experiences of the entire generation.
  • Rates of offending are higher in impoverished minority communities, but not high enough to explain the disparity. Racial disparities are better explained by disparate enforcement practices.
  • African Americans constitute 12% of the U.S. population, 13% of the drug using population, but an astonishing 74% of the people sent to prison for drug possession. (BJS).
  • In Baltimore, 11,107 of the 12,965 persons arrested for "drug abuse offenses" in 1991 were African Americans. (NCIA). In a crack sweep in Baltimore in the spring of 1996, all of the people arrested were black. White people found smoking crack were warned and sent home. 
  • Rates of offending in middle class minority communities are the same as the general population.
  • As minorities move through the system, they encounter slightly harsher treatment at every step. Marginal disparities at arrest are combined with marginal disparities at the bail decision, the charging decision, the verdict and the sentence - by the end of the process, the disparity is considerable.
  • Involvement in the system starts a vicious cycle. A person arrested once is branded an ex-offender for life. The person is pointed to as an example of how many people in the neighborhood are bad, or how many are repeat offenders. Having a criminal record also makes it more difficult to find a job.


Ideas for Reform

Q: Is it true that nothing works to prevent crime?
A: Absolutely not.
  • Decades of experimentation have led to positive model solutions to most problems relating to crime and violence. There is no absence of knowledge. All we need to do is invest in what works.
  • Scientifically evaluated programs have been proven to reduce: crime, gang-related behavior, welfare dependency, teen pregnancy, school drop-outs, school violence, drug use and family abuse. Other scientifically evaluated programs have been proven to increase: employability, parenting skills, family stability and economic opportunity.
  • The common elements that underlie successful initiatives, particularly initiatives organized at the grassroots, are: after school recreational programs where kids get mentoring, social support and discipline; educational innovations that motivate children to stay in school; job training carefully linked to job creation; problem-oriented, community based policing; well-designed therapeutic interventions for people with mental health difficulties and drug addictions; and involvement of parents, caretakers and entire communities.
  • Most successful community initiatives cost far less than prison construction and operation. The great obstacles tend to be political will and the tendency for the entire crime-control budget to be spent on the apparatus of law enforcement rather than to support community initiatives. We need to broaden our definition of "crime fighting" to incorporate more means to improve public safety.
Q: Can you give examples of successful programs?
A: Yes But most successful programs are small, neighborhood initiatives. The best place to look for models is your own community.
  • Early childhood development: The Head Start program returns about $7 in benefits for every dollar invested. Children born in poverty who attended a Head Start preschool program have half as many criminal arrests, less likelihood of going to jail, higher earnings and property wealth, and a greater commitment to family than similarly situated people who did not attend a program. (Perry Preschool).
  • Drug treatment: A comprehensive study of drug treatment in California found that every dollar spent on substance abuse treatment saved taxpayers over seven dollars in reduced crime and health care costs. The study also found that the level of criminal activity by program participants decreased by 66% following treatment; the number of crimes involving a weapon or physical force decreased by 71%. Yet while 75% of men in California prisons have a history of drug use, only 10% are involved in a drug treatment program. Current capacity of drug treatment facilities nationwide is inadequate to handle the need for treatment.
  • Recreation: Teenagers will find ways to entertain themselves-- by breaking windows and drinking liquor if not by playing ball. Parks and recreational opportunities like Midnight Basketball are proven effective at reducing crime. When a pilot program in Arizona kept basketball courts open until 2 a.m., juvenile crime decreased by as much as 50%. The cost of the program was 60 cents per person.
  • Gang-Prevention: Kids often turn to gangs because of the absence of pro-social recreational alternatives. Communities concerned about gangs need to develop sports leagues, after-school activities, church events, mentoring programs or other positive alternatives to gang membership.
  • Education: Education is the route to decent jobs and out of crime. In 1991, for the first time in U.S. history, cities spent more on law enforcement than education. Jurisdictions around the country are cutting education budgets because they lack sufficient funds while unquestioningly setting aside huge sums for law enforcement. Schools that engage parents or caretakers in troubled communities show excellent results. A 1996 Rand Corporation study showed that a high school graduation incentive program would prevent five times as many crimes as California's "Three-Strikes-You're-Out" law.
  • Special curricula: The Educational Development Center in Boston has developed curricula designed to teach school children how to settle conflicts without violence. Other schools in Boston followed the state Attorney General's lead in creating peer mediation squads to help headstrong teens find their way out of disputes.
  • Job Training: Vocational training for adolescents and dislocated workers can help reduce crime by enhancing employment opportunities.
  • The Labor Market: Job training is useless if there are no jobs. We must make a national commitment to genuine full employment in all communities.

See gernerally, Blueprints for Violence Prevention. The Blueprints project was developed by the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado–Boulder and is supported by Office of Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention (U.S. Dept of Justice). It has evolved into a large-scale prevention initiative, both identifying model programs and providing technical support to help sites choose and implement programs with a high degree of integrity. After reviewing more than 600 violence prevention programs, the Blueprints initiative has identified 11 model programs and 21 promising programs that prevent violence and drug use and treat youth with problem behaviors.

Q: How should we punish somebody who committed a crime?
A: Reserve prison for serious offenders and place lesser offenders in community corrections.
  • There are effective non-custodial ways to punish marginal offenders. Intensive probation, drug rehabilitation and community service are just a few of the options. Many of these options are much less expensive than prison and more effective at reducing recidivism. Continuum of Options chart
  • If just half of the non-violent prisoners were not incarcerated, about $8 billion would be saved annually on custodial operating costs alone. This money could be used to fund less expensive punishment and prevention programs that in the long run can prevent crime with fewer negative collateral effects on communities.
  • Under this scenario, the savings generated each year for crime prevention significantly exceeds all the money the 1994 federal crime control act allocates to crime prevention over six years.
  • If an addict or occasional drug user is convicted of simple possession of a small amount of a controlled substance and sentenced to a five year mandatory minimum sentence, the cost to the public of prison alone is $110,000.
  • For the same amount of money, society could: give the offender one year of prison ($22,000), one year of residential drug treatment ($15,000), and three years of supervised probation and outpatient drug treatment ($3,500 per year), and still have $62,500 left over for savings or other civic investment.
  • Community corrections help transform people who commit crimes into productive members of society. People who live in the community must care for themselves and find work in the manner of ordinary citizens. People behind bars are less responsible for themselves.
  • The small number of people who need to be locked up should be afforded every opportunity to improve themselves. The loss of liberty is the punishment. While incarcerated, they should work, get educated, undergo drug treatment, and everything else necessary so that society will not regret their release.


How Expanding the Criminal Justice System Makes All Americans Less Secure

People look to the criminal justice system for personal security. They are rightly concerned about crime and they want to be safe. Unquestioning reliance on the system, however, creates problems of its own. The state run bureaucracy of justice consumes billions of tax dollars every year, responds poorly to victims' needs, and resists every effort at reform. In some neighborhoods, the apparatus of justice actually causes more problems than it solves.

The oversized criminal justice system siphons money that could better be spent on other civic endeavors. The nation spends $100 billion every year on crime control. Spending on corrections at the state level has increased faster than any other spending category. While new prisons are being built, schools are crumbling, highways are growing potholed, parks are left to decay, and opportunity-generating programs are being cut. These conditions breed crime in the long run (see mopping the floor while the tub overflows).

In 1980, 3% of the California state budget went to prisons while 18% went to higher education. In 1994, 8% went to prisons and 8% went to education. Between 1994 and 1995, the overrun in state corrections spending (11.1% actual increase compared to 7.1% budgeted increase) exceeded the entire increase in higher education (2.3%). (NCJC).

In many inner city neighborhoods, half of the young men are under government supervision. In the District of Columbia, nearly 15% of the young men are locked up. Young women cannot find mates, children cannot see parents, and young men cannot develop careers. The high rates of involvement are not caused by serious violent crimes, but by lesser crimes, often involving noise or drugs. Prosecuting and imprisoning such people in such high numbers destabilizes communities and robs them of human and financial resources.

Approximately 80% of the young black men under age 35 have a criminal record. Having a record makes it harder to find work, and makes it impossible to get many kinds of professional licenses. A young man arrested for disorderly conduct may be unable to become a bus driver or a barber ten years later because his record violates licensure requirements.  

Lynch and Sabol, Prison use and Social Control discusses in more detail research examining how mass incarceration undermines informal social controls (family and community); it has a discussion of incarceration effects, models of weakened informal social control processes, and a review of empirical evidence.

Three Strikes and You’re Out: An Examination of the Impact of 3-Strike Laws 10 Years after their Enactment (2004) by The Justice Policy Institute found that

* Most states with three strikes laws rarely used them—the exception being California, which “struck-out” more offenders than the 20 other states with similar laws combined.
* The majority of people incarcerated under three strikes laws are non-violent offenders.
* States without three strikes laws actually saw greater decreases in violent crimes than those with three strikes laws.

Pew Center study showing that about 1 in 100 Americans are behind behind bars noted that 5 states spend more on prisons than higher education.  

Why Big Government is not the Answer

Most crime is local. Kids make too much noise, individuals suffer from drug addictions, dealers convert a vacant property into a crack house, and convenience stores lose inventory to shoplifters. The solutions to such problems are also local: parks and community gardens so kids have something positive to do with their time, drug treatment facilities, neighborhood patrols, and sentences that require shoplifters to sweep the sidewalks in the business district. These innovative, small scale approaches to crime control are best designed and implemented by people closest to the problem.

The very best crime control arises from informal neighborhood relations. Crime thrives when people are indoors and afraid. A healthy neighborhood is one where people walk outdoors and neighbors watch each other's homes. Big government solutions like prison projects do little to foster such conditions.

The best role for the government is to promote problem-solving, community oriented policing, and to free public moneys to support small scale projects. Investing millions in a new prison does not do as much good for public safety as investing thousands in drug treatment facilities or job training programs.

If the government cannot help, it should at least not interfere in neighborhoods trying to solve their own problems. Unfortunately, big government interventions like mass arrests and prison construction often do more harm than good.  


Why to Treat the Mass Media With Caution

The mass media plays a substantial role in blowing crime fear out of proportion. TV crime coverage is one of the biggest reasons that people who live in neighborhoods with virtually zero street crime report that crime is a number one concern.
  • Between 1992 and 1993, major network evening news coverage of homicide tripled, even though the homicide rate went down.
  • In 1980 there were no major network "true crime" television shows. Now there is such a show almost every night. (America's Most Wanted, Top Cops, American Detective, Unsolved Mysteries, etc.).

When local news wants an easy story, it goes to the local police station and finds out what happened that day. When national news wants to excite viewers, it scours the nation for the day's most titillating crime, and broadcasts it everywhere. The result is a popular sense that rare and extreme crimes happen around every corner.

Psychological and public opinion research shows that heavy viewers of television feel that their own lives are under siege. Heavy viewers exhibit exaggerated fears of victimization and a perception that people cannot be trusted; they are more likely to buy anti-crime devices such as locks and guns, and more likely to support punitive crime policies. (Gerbner, Carlson, NCJC).

Some stations are seeking alternatives. KVUE television in Texas, for example, found its viewers frustrated with repetitive coverage of trivial crime news. The station adopted criteria for crime coverage and excluded crimes that were not nationally important or did not have local consequences. The choice freed air time for coverage of more important events.  


Questions to Ask Someone Who Wants Your Vote

It's an election year. Politicians at every level, from U.S. President to the county dog catcher, are posturing for voters. Crime is an easy political issue because everybody is against it and nobody is for it. Unlike health care or deficit reduction, which bring out powerful constituencies on all sides, crime control is one dimensional. Politicians compete to act most "tough" regardless of the sensibility of the policy. As a result, they often overlook cheaper, more effective, less eye- catching policies.

Posturing on crime puts a special burden on the citizenry. This is a democracy. Posturing politicians won't be elected if the citizens demand substance over soundbites. To get fuller information, try asking the following questions:

  • How much will the policy cost? How will it be paid for? Will taxes be raised? What programs will be cut?
  • Is it necessary to build a new prison or jail? Have you explored all options? Have you considered community sanctions for non- violent offenses?
  • How will you pay for that prison? Will you raise taxes? What program will you cut? Will you borrow money, and if so, at what interest rate?
  • Who will fill the new prison or jail? Are they murderers and rapists, or lesser offenders like drug addicts and noisy kids? Can drug addicts and noisy kids be held accountable for their behavior without sending them to jail? Be sure to get the statistics!
  • Can everybody in this district who wants drug treatment get it? If not, why not? Do we need more treatment programs? Should we start a drug court?
  • Are there adequate recreational opportunities for kids? Are there sports leagues, after school programs, parks? What can teenagers do for fun that also keeps them out of trouble?
  • If you are worried about teen violence, have you considered peer mediation and anti-violence curricula for the schools?
  • If you are worried about domestic abuse, are there sufficient battered women's shelters and domestic counselors in the district? Do the shelters take children?
  • If you are worried about victims, have you made sure they are treated respectfully by police and prosecutors? Are they informed of court dates? Do they get restitution? When their property is used for evidence, is it returned in a timely manner?
  • What is the racial mix of people currently being entered into the justice system? How will the mix change if the new policy is enacted? If I were a member of the racial group most affected, would I feel unfairly singled out?

How To Make the Nation Safe: Solutions for a Modern Age

  • Stop relying on prisons as the primary response to criminal behavior. Impose a three year moratorium on new prison construction pending proof that additional capacity is needed to confine serious or repeat offenders.
  • It costs $100,000 to build a new prison cell, $200,000 over 25 years to pay interest on the construction debt, and $22,000 a year to operate the cell. The nation has tripled its prison population since 1980, opening the equivalent of 3 new 500 bed prisons every week, but most of the increase in prison admissions were for non-violent offenses.
  • Develop intermediate sanctions to punish people who commit lesser offenses; focus on community service and restitution so that offenders give something back to the victim and the community.
  • Somebody convicted of shoplifting should be sentenced to sweep sidewalks in the business district for six months; somebody convicted of vandalism should be sentenced to cleaning parks and scrubbing signs for a year. Fines, electronic monitoring and intensive probation all cost less than prison and have lower rates of recidivism.
  • Replace the war on drugs with a policy of harm reduction, in which the police work with public health professionals to stem illegal drug use.
  • Drug use itself is less of a problem than the issues associated with drug use: gang violence, ruined families, squalid neighborhoods, spread of AIDS. Treatment facilities and therapeutic interventions can go far to reduce the demand for illegal drugs; needle exchange programs and enforcement of gun laws can go far to reduce the harm associated with drug use. A California study found that every dollar spent on drug treatment saved seven dollars in other social costs.
  • Balance criminal justice spending with spending on other civic activities such as education and recreation.
  • Night time basketball programs have been associated with fifty percent reductions in juvenile crime. Education is the path to better jobs and away from crime, and high school anti-violence curricula help hotheaded teens to resolve their conflicts without gunfire. Nonetheless, education and recreation spending has been hard hit by demands for new corrections spending. Jurisdictions may consider fiscal impact statements that require every new criminal justice initiative to explain how much it will cost and how it will be paid for.
  • Restore the internal balance of the system so that judges have more discretion at sentencing and prosecutors are confined by an adversary system of checks and balances.
  • Rigid rules like mandatory sentencing laws have transferred power from neutral judges to partisan prosecutors, and impaired judge's flexibility to make the punishment fit the offense and the offender. Prosecutor budgets also exceed defense budgets by more than four times- so our adversarial system of justice is becoming a one-sided game.
  • Treat crime victims better.
  • The bureaucracy of justice entangles victims. Victims often fail to receive restitution, notice of court dates or even respectful treatment. Victims should be made to feel whole, not angry, by the justice process. The justice process should also explore policies designed to prevent people from being victimized in the first place.
  • Criminal justice policy should be made on the basis of quality information- not outdated research, not myth, and not sensational anecdotes.
  • Official justice data is usually three years old on the date it is published. Though much of the data is useful and important, some is presented in a manner designed to support the policies of parties in power. The media should treat government data sources (like police and prosecutors) as sources of the government position, not necessarily neutral dispensers of information. The media should also resist the urge to sensationalize: between 1992 and 1993 the major network news coverage of homicide tripled, though homicide went down several percent. Not surprisingly, the American public thought homicide had increased and called for policies accordingly.
  • Recognize that crime is a multi-dimensional issue and welcome solutions that do not stem from law enforcement officials. All levels of government should create crime prevention councils to develop a coordinated anti-crime strategy.
  • Repeat violent offenders do not fall from the sky. We see them when they are three years old in the child neglect system and five years old in the foster care system; we see them at eight years old as the neighborhood bully, twelve years old as habitual truants, fifteen years old as a vandals, eighteen years old in the unemployment office, twenty year olds in the emergency room suffering from stab wounds, and finally, at age twenty five, in custody for a serious crime. The individual's responsibility for their own choices does not relieve us all of responsibility for failing at every stage to help direct the person towards a better life. Councils should include police, prosecutors, educators, social service professionals, public health specialists, child welfare officials, church groups, crime victims, neighborhood associations, and anyone else willing to reflect on how to improve neighborhood safety and quality of life.
  • Pass gun control legislation at the federal level. Stringent gun control legislation will not reduce violence, but it will reduce its harmful effects.
  • In 1992, Americans owned 212 million guns. A gun is made in America every ten seconds and another gun is imported every eleven seconds. Rates of gun ownership in the United States run about twenty times the rate in comparable nations- and so do the rates of homicide. In 1993, more than five times as many victims died from firearms than knives, the second most deadly weapon. It is much easier to kill with a gun than by any other means, and the presence of a gun can turn heated arguments into homicides. Federal legislation prevents guns from moving between jurisdictions with different laws.
  • Recognize the relationship between poverty, economic inequality and crime, and make a national effort to reduce the conditions in which crime most easily takes root.
  • The poorest neighborhoods have the highest crime- the statistics show it and anyone who avoids those neighborhoods at night will confirm it. Just half of prison inmates held full time jobs prior to their incarceration, and only a quarter had graduated from high school. Economic opportunity and jobs that pay a living wage remain key ingredients to reducing crime.
  • Eliminate racial bias and reduce racial disparity within the justice system.
  • African Americans constitute 12% of the U.S. population, 13% of the drug using population and fully 74% of the people sent to prison for drug possession. Minorities are subject to disparate treatment at arrest, bail, charging, plea bargaining, trial, sentencing, and every other stage of the criminal process. These disparities accumulate so that African Americans are represented in prison at seven times their rate in the general population; rates of crime in African American communities is often high, but not high enough to justify the disparity. The resentment destabilizes communities and demeans the entire nation.
  • Shift from an agenda of "war" to an agenda of "peace."
  • Americans should stop talking of a "war" on drugs and a "war" on crime. A war against the American people is a war nobody can win; it brings hostility and division, exhausts our resources and saps our moral strength. We should shift to an agenda of peace and seek terms for a lasting reconciliation: build parks, invest in job creation, share concerns and find a way for all Americans to build a safer society.

See also: Justice Reinvestment - To Invest in Public Safety by Reallocating Justice Dollars to Refinance Education, Housing, Healthcare, and Jobs. 

More than $54 billion is spent annually on prisons in the United States, much of it directed toward incarcerating people for non-violent drug offenses with little or no hope of access to rehabilitation services. In the November 2003 issue of Ideas for an Open Society, Susan Tucker and Eric Cadora argue that the nation's dependence on mass incarceration reflects an approach to imprisonment that actually sacrifices public safety. They contend that the appropriate strategy to address this situation is to reallocate funding throughout the U.S. criminal justice system toward education, housing, health care, and jobs—all priority areas that can directly influence crime rates.




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