Thursday, January 1, 2009

Justice, the Old Fashioned Way

The New York Times has an editorial posted concerning Senator Jim Webb's proposal to reform the nation's criminal justice and prison systems. Webb uses his extensive knowledge of Asian culture and sense of right vs. wrong to make a strong case for change.

I first became aware of his views when reading his books "A Time to Fight" and "A Country Such As This", the former a work of non-fiction and the latter a novel. Webb pointed out many instances where our criminal justice system was failing, either via straight-ahead commentary or through the eyes of a specific character.
In "A Country Such As This", one of Webb's main characters,  “Red” Lesczynski, a Navy pilot, develops a fascination with Japanese culture and forms a strong friendship with a local businessman who works for a small automobile manufacturer that is beginning to expand globally - Toyota. 
Through this relationship, Red is able to compare and contrast various aspects of American and Japanese culture. One area where Lesczynski notes major differences is in the Japanese justice and prison system, which surprises him because Japan's system was built during the allied occupation after WWII, using the American and British frameworks as a model. Somewhere along the way, the Japanese stayed true to the tenets of western justice brought forth by our forefathers, while the Americans lost their way.
Since all good fiction has a basis in truth, it's not shocking that some of the same arguments made by Webb in his novel are evident in his call for reform. It also does not make them any less relevant.

The US has a higher percentage of its population incarcerated than any other country - 1 in 100. We have 5% of the world's people and 25% of the prisoners.

The majority of our inmates are serving sentences for non-violent crimes, and we're spending billions upon billions to build and staff prisons to keep up with the increasing number of convicts. Imagine the good works that could be performed with those funds.

What does it say about the circular logic of the current system when locking up more people has the result of causing even more people to be incarcerated? If prison was an effective deterrent, shouldn't the outcome be completely different?
And what does it say about us that we choose to remove our friends and neighbors from our society for minor transgressions, rather than meting out appropriate punishment and then moving on?

The days when people were placed in stocks in the public square and suffered the temporary scorn of the populace appear highly effective in retrospect. When their time was up, the offenders were released (and accepted) back into society, where they resumed their contributions to the collective group. Jail was left for those who committed crime so heinous or unforgiveable that they needed to be removed completely for the good of the people.

We need more people paying their debts to society through public works projects, social services agencies, and community improvement initiatives. The cost of managing these programs is dwarfed by the public benefit that results, as opposed to the bottomless pit of prison.

Lest you attempt to label me as a bleeding-heart liberal, consider that I spent three years as a military police officer, majored in Administration of Justice at Penn State, and spent fifteen years in corporate fraud and investigations prior to launching a second career in information security. I've seen all sides of the paradigm.

It's said that the definition of insanity is to follow the same recipe while expecting different results. That's the tipping point we're at now. Without wholesale change in our approach to good vs. evil, we're sentencing ourselves to decades more of the same outcome.

Law and order politicians, mandatory minimum sentencing, and the concept of "when you have a monster judicial hammer, everything looks like a nail" have led us astray. Maybe our future can be solved by our past.
Abraham Lincoln is quoted as saying, "I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice." As we move into a new approach to governing, perhaps it's time to include mercy on our list of core values.

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