What It Takes to Decriminalize Criminals

By Jessie Jin

Image credit: Rolling Stone

The American justice system is in urgent need for reform. It is oppressive, unfair, and ineffective. Instead of being a place of nurturing and helping people get back to their regular lives, it creates a stigma that surrounds inmates for the rest of their lives. 

The purpose of the American criminal justice system can be best broken down to three sections: deterrence, retribution and rehabilitation. We have a major focus on deterrence and retribution, but the support system for rehabilitation is inadequate. Sure, putting harsh punishments disincentivize people from stealing, but what if someone is so poor that they have no option but to steal? Of course, the justice system should have reparations for the victim and punishments for the criminals, but what is causing these people to commit crimes in the first place? The biggest problem with the American criminal justice system is that it is a place of punishment, not a place of support. The system needs more rehabilitation—a correctional system of re-educating criminals and providing aid to prepare them for their transition back into society. On this basis, rehabilitation should be the primary method used for criminal sentencing in the American criminal justice system. 

The extreme focus on the penalty of the current justice system gives criminals the punishments they “deserve”. However, it neglects an extremely vulnerable group of people: the minorities. When someone steals, the system immediately starts giving punishments for stealing, but does not address why the person is stealing. Is it due to extreme poverty? Or is it simply because of greed? Although both cases are stealing, one is done because of a failure of the social system to provide basic needs. Statistics suggest that Americans who have an income level below the Federal poverty threshold have more than double the rates of violent victimization and crime compared to individuals in high-income households. A criminal justice system prioritizing rehabilitation is actually able to target the difference in incentive and create a personalized program for each criminal. Criminal rehabilitation should be a basic right, given how many Americans have no choice but commit crimes to survive. 

Another factor to consider is education within the jails. When the welfare programs provide criminals with resources that make them understand why their thinking is wrong, we are reducing the chances of criminals re-committing crimes. Deterrence and retribution seem to punish people due to their wrongful actions based on laws and societal codes, but in fact lack understanding of the context behind those wrong actions. Rehabilitation includes a broad array of programs including mental health, substance abuse, and educational services. In addition, specialty programs have been developed for women, sex offenders, and parolees. Evaluational studies show that rehabilitation programs reduce recidivism by about 10%. This would be a significant reduction in numbers of recurring offenders, if the government is able to implement stronger programs for learning. 

Until the mid-1970s, rehabilitation was a key part of U.S. prison policy. Prisoners were encouraged to develop occupational skills and to resolve psychological problems, such as substance abuse or aggression, that might interfere with their reintegration into society. Many inmates received court sentences that mandated treatment for such problems. However, as America took a harder stance on “get tough on crime”, rehabilitation has gradually lost its spot in the criminal justice system. The new approach has created explosive growth in the prison population, while having minimal effect on crime rates. The United States now has more than 2 million people in prisons, and another four to five million people on probation or parole. It is time to understand that prison should not be a stigmatized place of cold, hard punishments. It is time for the prisons to humanize their programs and provide the support they need for inmates to reintegrate into the society successfully. The justice system needs to prioritize rehabilitation for reintegration, for it could give someone born into an unfortunate circumstance a second chance at life. 

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