Deep Dive: Criminal Justice


By: Jim Cowles

The Venn’s Deep Dive topic this week is Criminal Justice. See our newsletter for three podcasts that address aspects of America’s mass incarceration. Why did we choose this topic:

Justice. A powerful word. Simply put, justice is another word for ‘fair’. It’s a concept that is applied to many aspects of our lives, from elementary school playground behavior (‘that’s not fair’), to the belief that justice should be one of the qualities at the foundation of our society.

Now, attach the word ‘criminal’ to justice and you end up with the system which reflects our approach to law and order. What is fair in the treatment of people who are accused of breaking the law and what is fair treatment of those found guilty? Fundamental to the legitimacy of that system is that it is fair. That people are treated the same. That there is proportionality amongst the punishment meted out for one offense versus another. And, that the system we have in the US complies with the values stipulated in our Constitution. Accordingly, denying people their liberty is denying them a fundamental human right. Doing this justly, fairly is the responsibility of our criminal justice system.

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I think most Americans believe we are a just people. I think most Americans believe we are a country comprised of decent people. So,why then do we have a prison population that is proportionally the highest in the world? Is our system more harsh than any other country? Than China or Russia? Or, are our people more dishonest than anywhere else in the world? Are we four times more prone to breaking the law than people in England? Or, are all of the other countries soft on crime and not enforcing their laws? This anomaly has led people across the U.S. political spectrum to the conclusion that we have a mass incarceration problem in our country. 

In the lead up to the 2020 U.S. election, the prospective candidates are defining where they stand on the big issues of the day. Most agree on the need for reforms that reduce mass incarceration. Some are more narrow in their focus, like Senator Kirsten Gillibrand who has focused on incarcerated women. Either way, criminal justice reform will be a central topic of debate and discussion over the coming months, which is why we chose it as our deep dive issue for this week’s newsletter.

This will form part one of a three-part series on the subject. This week we focus on how we got to such a high level of imprisonment and what the First Step Act (the first major piece of Federal criminal justice legislation in over a decade) means for the future of criminal justice reform. In future Deep Dives we will focus on other aspects of criminal justice, including rehabilitation and prison reform.

One measure of a society is whether it is just. One measure of government is how it wields its power. Our criminal justice system represents the intersection of the two.