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Understand criminal justice system before any attempts to ‘reform’

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Where generally divergent views can find common ground, I try to highlight them. Accordingly, from Donna Hamm’s recent opinion article in the Arizona Capitol Times, I agree with her view that before engaging in efforts to improve Arizona’s criminal justice system proponents should endeavor to first understand the system. Pursuing improvements simply for reform’s sake is nothing more than “busy work” and runs the risk of causing unintended consequences that public safety can ill afford. Among the most recent efforts that Ms. Hamm highlighted, were changes in calculating earned release credits and arbitrary reductions in sentences. Neither effort has objective data showing how the proposed changes would be any improvement to our criminal justice system other than to make the proponents feel good about making changes. If we want to really identify areas for improvement that could protect the public, improve outcomes, and make a real difference, we have to start with some basic questions.

Montgomery

Montgomery

First, what is the purpose of our criminal justice system and government’s involvement? Given that government’s primary purpose in criminal justice is public safety, the government’s involvement is a continuing endeavor with an obligation to appropriately fund and supervise the operation and outcomes of our criminal justice system and do it efficiently. As for the purpose of our criminal justice system, we can all agree that its purpose is to hold offenders accountable, treat defendants and victims with fairness, respect, and dignity, and promote public safety. Next, how can our criminal justice system best accomplish its purpose? This is a topic that has often been a disjunctive endeavor. Proponents for “reform” pursue ideas without regard for the purpose of our criminal justice system or lack data to support how proposed changes will offer improved outcomes. Yet, this is the place with the most promise for producing real results in identifying areas for improving our criminal justice system. In just the last several years, we have modified our state laws on diversion to afford second chances to drug offenders who successfully complete treatment, having their cases dismissed with prejudice. We’ve also enhanced and increased early release programs for prison inmates returning to the community. However, more can and should be done.

What should we focus on next? If we stay true to holding offenders accountable and promoting public safety as part of the purpose of the criminal justice system, then focusing on reducing recidivism is key to efficiently spending and managing our criminal justice system dollars. In particular, if we begin to implement the same types of programs addressing cognitive behavioral and substance abuse issues when a person enters prison, and not just as part of an early release or re-entry program, we have more time during an inmate’s stay to help them make lasting changes and break the recidivism cycle.  While ultimately the decision to change behavior is an individual’s to make, the potential outcomes are significant. It is important to note that right now in Arizona, half of all prison inmates are serving their first prison sentence. Under Arizona’s sentencing statutes only a few areas of crime automatically call for a prison sentence, so an overwhelming majority of crimes result in probation. However, if just half of the inmates currently serving their first sentence were prevented from committing another felony, it would mean about 10,000 individuals would never return to prison. We could systematically reduce the prison population over time without jeopardizing public safety and actually manage to make a real difference in the lives of former criminals. By providing a real chance at rehabilitation we also prevent the future victimization of an untold numbers of fellow citizens. Furthermore, consider the potential for a radical change in the prison environment. What if inmates were more focused on developing the types of behavioral norms and societal attitudes necessary for success when they returned to the community instead of engaging in smuggling contraband, using drugs, and dividing into groups based on race, gang affiliation, or the type of crime committed? What if, instead of mutual combat, there was mutual accountability for upholding new norms of conduct? This isn’t a fantasy world. San Quentin Prison in California reflects this type of environment. I’ve seen it firsthand. This would be real change with real results based on objective data instead of empty pursuits fueled by mere rhetoric and driven by emotion.

Responsible improvements should recognize public safety as the primary purpose of the system, while offering a real opportunity for a second chance through investing and supporting a strategic approach in reducing crime and saving tax payer money, and it should start from the beginning of an inmate’s sentence until they re-enter society. This should all be tracked through performance-based measurements to assess achievements, determine what program success looks like, and continue to pursue improvements along the way. Gathering data is a necessary component along with measuring it correctly and using it to guide improvements to ultimately accomplish our mutual criminal justice system goals.

— Bill Montgomery is the Maricopa County Attorney.

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The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.

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