Deep Dive: Criminal Justice, Part Two

By: Jim Cowles


The Venn’s Deep Dive topic on June 13 was part two of our look at Criminal Justice.

Two weeks ago we focused on what drives the high levels of incarceration in the U.S. and my article looked at how to define the term ‘Criminal Justice’. This week we focused on the  purpose, politics, and impact of incarceration.

The U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration of any country in the world. That means a higher percentage of our population is behind bars than anywhere else on the planet. We also have one of the highest levels of recidivism; around 70% of people released from prison are back behind bars within three years. That looks something like a revolving door.  These high levels of incarceration and recidivism, compared with the rest of the world, should tell us that something isn’t working.

When a policy isn’t producing the results we want, the first step to take is go back to the beginning and ask what are we trying to solve for? Unless we are clear on the problem we are trying to solve for and the outcome we are hoping  to achieve, we have little chance of designing a policy that will prove effective.

Untitled design (26) copy.png

So let's start with the question, ‘why do we imprison people’? To protect society from criminals?  As a punishment for people who violate our laws? As a deterrent to other would-be offenders? The answer would be yes to all of those questions. But let’s rephrase the question and ask, ‘ what do we as a society want to achieve from placing offenders into our correctional system?’

The first three questions above are still applicable, but this new question prompts  us to explore the issue of rehabilitation. Since 95% of the people we send to prison are eventually released, then it is in society’s best interest to design a correctional  system that focuses on reforming those we incarcerate. Many would argue that high rates of recidivism mean we are failing to keep our citizens safe from future crimes, that we are increasing the cost of our correctional system, and that we are unwilling to help those who have been convicted of crimes.  In sum, it is a poor reflection on our society as a whole.

But there are powerful political factors and emotional responses regarding the principles and policies that drive our correctional system. Our Deep Dive podcasts explore the politics of incarceration and the potential policies that can lead to a reduction in recidivism.  

The statistics show that our current system is not working.  A lot of focus has been on making our criminal justice system tough but many would argue it is time to make it smarter.