Criminal Justice Reform – Separating Myth From Reality


Social issues like crime, criminal justice reform, mass incarceration and policing
are very complex. The loudest voices often push simplistic solutions reflecting
their limited viewpoint, accomplishing nothing more than distorting the issues.
Whether progressive or conservative – the common feature of all these groups,
with a “tribal” mentality, is a response to complexity which denies all facts that do
not fit neatly into their myopic view.

Quick fixes are easy, but effective reform requires a difficult process which
includes: diversity of viewpoints reflecting the interests of every group
impacted, exhaustive fact finding with unbiased analysis, constructive
conflict with negotiation, and a time consuming period of trial and error.

Exposing some popular myths I have observed during my thirty years working
in the criminal justice system might be a good start. No doubt these observations
will touch a nerve with agencies and groups invested in their particular “sacred”


The recent mass subway shootings in New York City by a deranged individual named Frank R. James
highlights the results of “quick fix” solutions cities and state legislatures have enacted in
the wake of the infamous death of George Floyd. It is what often happens when politicians ride
a wave of popular outrage and emotion following some tragic event. It is obvious that America
incarcerates far too many young men, particularly young men of color.

So COURT DIVERSION programs, BAIL(elimination)REFORM, kinder-gentler PROSECUTORS, and more
LENIENT PAROLE OFFICERS are being sold as “solutions.” They are actually simplistic “quick fixes”
that avoid real underlying issues that cause more harm than good.

An example is New York’s new “Parole Reform” laws which seek to eliminate arrests of
parolees for mere “technical” violations. “Technical” sounds frivolous, trivial and unimportant.
It is, in fact, a legal term for the RULES FOR SAFE SUPERVISED RELEASE of inmate back
to the community. When I was a parole officer and discovered a parolee releasee was dealing drugs,
stealing, carrying a weapon, or threatening people, I got that individual off the street
before someone got hurt, often before police had the knowledge or authority to act.
difficult, if not impossible for officers to enforce under our new parole “reform” legislation.

In addition to our misguided “War On Drugs,” mass incarceration has been fueled by
the decision several decades ago to CLOSE LONG TERM STATE PSYCHIATRIC HOSPITALS.
A terrific money saver in the short run. It was hailed as a progressive “humanitarian”
gesture in which hundreds of thousands of chronic mentally disabled patients would
be cared for in a wonderful community mental health system. Of course the price tag
for that was deemed far too high, so we rely on homeless shelters, jails, and prisons.
Police are now forced to do the work of psychiatric hospital staff, often with tragic results.

Based on his incoherent rants on You Tube and disorganized behavior a state psychiatric
hospital is where Frank James probably needed to be, if we still had them. Instead he was
regularly in and out of jail, will eleven known arrests in New York and New Jersey, and most
probably more arrests in other states. He will now end up in our only long term supervised
facility – prison.

Prison is where those who cannot compete in our intensely competitive society are
warehoused. There are no enrollment exams, admissions interviews, education
requirements or social skills needed for admission. The harsh reality is that given our
inadequate community services – the homeless and mentally ill who commit crimes
NEED TO BE INCARCERATED. For their safety and ours. Jail is the closest thing to
the state hospital system we dismantled. Less humane but secure, with a guarantee of
“three hots and a cot.” The irony is that our current mess is far more expensive than the
state hospital system we dismantled.

Buzzwords like COMMUNITY RE-INTEGRATION cannot hide the fact that most inmates
cannot “re-integrate” into a society they were NEVER A PART OF. Mental illness, illiteracy
(over 60% of incarcerated individuals are functionally illiterate) and/or chronic substance
addiction keep them outsiders. Our prison system has actually followed an unofficial
re-integration policy for decades, by paroling inmates back to the same high crime
neighborhoods, same streets, and same criminal peer groups they came from. With
no more education, training or rehabilitation than when they went to jail, they quickly
re-integrate back into “the streets.”

We could learn from our mistakes and re-establish the system of LONG TERM STATE
PSYCHIATRIC HOSPITALS, or make a major allocation of resources for an integrated
system of community services: psychiatric/educational/vocational/housing/rehabilitative.
Until this happens all “reforms” including court and prison diversion will simply increase
crime, and be doomed to fail.

The Tao of Police Work

The Tao of Police Work

Denzel jumps up from his chair in a rage. “Why you people f – – — ing with me?!” He is very agitated and now paces the floor of his social worker’s office, cursing loudly. As his parole officer, I am the first officer to arrive. Standing off to the side, I observe what’s happening. The worker seems frozen in fear, as she just sits there letting the guy pace around her office and curse at her. At one time my mind would have screamed, “Don’t just stand there—do something!” but I have since learned and trained myself to do just the opposite. A quiet voice says, “Don’t do something, Thomas. Just stand there.”

Just observing and listening, I realize the social worker is not frozen in fear. Her silence has purpose. With no one to argue with, no directives to defy, Denzel seems to be gradually calming himself down. The worker’s disciplined response allows the intensity of his emotion to slowly dissipate. Her inaction has allowed Denzel to vent his anger and frustration without argument. She saw the behavior for what it was: not violence, actually the opposite of violence. A harmless verbal release of pent-up energy. Noisy, yes, dangerous, no. I wish my fellow officers understood this.

When other officers arrive, they are pumped and ready for action! The sergeant says, “The call said a guy is out of control.” I gesture that things are OK. “Everything is under control, Sarg; it just got a little loud. The guy just got a little upset. He didn’t hurt anyone.”

The sergeant accepts that, but he is probably thinking: “What a lazy… ” The officers most likely are both relieved and disappointed—they had responded ready for action. I know they had expected me to arrest Denzel, and violate his parole for Disorderly Conduct.I understand what they are feeling. It is very uncomfortable when that adrenalin cannot be discharged with physical action.

Sure I’d love to hear one of them tell me “You’re a real take charge person.” Don’t we all? But I’ve seen too often that the inevitable burst of adrenaline that always comes with potential danger, along with the expectation to “do something” , unfortunately often creates violent confrontations.

If we arrested everyone for sometimes loudly and rudely releasing emotion, wouldn’t we all be in jail. I know I would. Should “order” really be our highest value. “Order” is not the same as safety, which is the true mission of a peace officer. Being still and “not doing” often takes more energy and discipline than “doing.” Ask anyone who has tried meditation. Try sitting still for more than a few moments. You quickly experience an onslaught of thoughts, sensations, and emotions. There are overwhelming feelings of boredom and restlessness, or an itch, an ache, or physical discomfort in the neck, back, or knees. Are you still sitting there? Not likely, not without a lot of training.

It took me a long time to learn this, and even longer to gain the self-discipline needed to practice it under stress; to avoid overreacting, which usually leads to physical confrontation; and to see the sound and fury of yelling, cursing, etc. for what it usually is: an alternative to violence. It’s actually a form of self-control—disruptive, and sometimes frightening, but a far less destructive release of pain than violence. I now realize that allowing people verbalize emotion, even yelling and cursing, reduces their need to physically act out. In truth, expressing strong emotions is a very human thing to do, and it is rarely dangerous.

The Taoists got it right: it was the actions we did not take that allowed Denzel to express strong emotions, calm himself down and restore his composure.

The discipline required to just listen, without arguing, correcting, lecturing, or grabbing someone in an agitated state allows de-escalation to happen. It takes time and patience. It takes resisting pressure to quickly get things quiet and “back to business as usual.”

When peace officers are called, people expect you to “take charge,” and fix the situation. It feeds your ego, providing a sense of purpose, making you feel useful – a “real take charge” person. This is why being still in these situations is so difficult.

When friends say, “I tried meditation; it’s not for me,” a more accurate report would be “I tried meditation, but stillness is just too hard. It is terrifying!” Being still and doing nothing except being aware is, in fact, just about the hardest thing one can do (or not do). After thirty years of practice, I still find it very challenging.

While being still and just listening usually helps people de-escalate, police receive little or no training for this. Yet we are expected to use restraint, without being taught any skills to accomplish this. All our training is “action” oriented.

Meditation and breathing practices are two of my most important tools of restraint. How could I do this job well without them? I learned these things living in Japan and studying in China, but they should have been part of my peace officer academy training. Perhaps we need a new kind of police academy.

As I leave, walking to my car is another practice in stillness I learned. I am not busy planning, fantasizing, daydreaming, worrying, etc.; I am feeling my footsteps on the asphalt, then the tightness in my shoulder. Next, my breath moving in and out. I feel the breeze blowing my hair around, and hear the sound of a squawking seagull sitting on a nearby dumpster. They call it mindfulness, just being still and coming to our senses.

At my next destination, the post office, there is a long line. The guy in front of me angrily complains about the wait. I understand his agitation. Being still and doing nothing is hard. But, I do not share his agitation. The line offers a quiet space, with no responsibilities and nothing to be done. My deep breathing takes over, leading me into a deep relaxation. A peaceful space in my busy day. It feels like being back in the Zen monastery again.

Oh no—I am almost to the front of the line. Perhaps next time I can find a longer line!