Criminal Justice Reform – Separating Myth From Reality

Social issues like criminal justice reform, mass incarceration and policing are very complex. The loudest voices seem to be pushing simplistic solutions that reflect their limited viewpoint, serving only to distorting already complex issues. Whether progressive or conservative, a common feature of these “tribal” mentalities is a response to complexity which denies all facts not fitting into their myopic view. Working thirty years both as a law enforcement officer and social worker, has forced me to see the many sides of these issues.

Quick fixes are easy, but effective reform requires a painfully slow process which includes: a 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 might be a good start. These observations will undoubtedly touch a nerve with agencies and groups invested in their particular “sacred” mythologies:THE MYTH OF PRISON “REFORM”

It is obvious that America incarcerates far too many young men, particularly young men of color. Simplistic calls for COURT DIVERSION programs, BAIL(elimination)REFORM, kinder-gentler PROSECUTORS, and more LENIENT PAROLE OFFICERS are being sold as “solutions.” They are actually easy “quick fixes” that are causing 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 into the community. When a PO discovers the releasee is dealing drugs, stealing, carrying a weapon, or threatening people, prior to “reform” he made an arrest. He got that individual off the street before someone got hurt, often before police had the knowledge or authority to act. These are the NOT SO TRIVIAL TECHNICAL VIOLATIONS OF PAROLE which are now difficult, if not impossible for officers to enforce under our new parole “reform” legislation.

In addition to the misguided “War On Drugs,” mass incarceration has been fueled by the decision several decades ago to close long term state psychiatric hospitals. In Queens and Long Island alone the enormous Creedmore, Pilgrim State, Kings Park, and Central Islip State Hospital facilities sit largely idol. 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 which never materialized. 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.

Prison is where those who cannot compete in our intensely competitive society are now warehoused, since 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 kept 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.