Inmates have a unique perspective on the criminal justice system. Those I know have been in prison for a long time — some have been in since they were sixteen and one I met entered the prison system in 1985 and will not get out until 2030. All have learned to cope with oppressive architecture, consistent isolation and arbitrary rules. Most have also committed heinous crimes and serious prison infractions. Many speak of political and legal power in near-conspiratorial tones, convinced anonymous moneyed interests — “them” — hold onto power regardless of superficial changes in the power structure. Nearly all seem to feel that the system has failed them.
Corrections officers fare better, but have a similar set of problems. Many of the jobs are isolating — without advanced technology, several positions consist of staying in small metal boxes for long periods of time with only a radio. I have heard many go through a learning curve, eventually coming to listen to inmates with severe skepticism, and adhere strictly to protocol, even when it seems unreasonable. In some cases, officers end up treating mentally ill or borderline mentally ill inmates they were never trained to treat.
The United States incarcerates more people than any other country — over five times as many per capita as the next highest country, China. Is it effective? Re-arrest rates hover around 65 percent. Commentators have pointed out numerous failings of the criminal justice system: prisons are often incubators of further crime, by networking criminals and creating resentment; the law disproportionately punishes non-violent offenders; and the system fails to adequately reintegrate inmates once they are released. Given the steep penalties, why do people continue to break the law?
Despite the size of America’s criminal justice system and the diversity of subjects that the law addresses, the system uses a single, monolithic — and largely ineffective — technique to control crime: post-crime punishment. Politicians, lawmakers and judges who are “tough on crime” impose longer sentences more often. Unfortunately, more punishment does not translate into more social control. Remedial, as opposed to preventative measures, solve only a subset of legal problems; ideally, our system would induce compliance even in the absence of law enforcement. But without respect for the norms implicit in the legal system, citizens only obey the law in the presence of law enforcement, creating the impossible demand on police to be everywhere at once to achieve compliance. The system grinds against itself by attempting to coerce compliance through the methods that create antipathy to law enforcement in the first place. An ideal system would induce compliance regardless of the presence of law enforcement.
Some striking research suggests this may be easier than once thought. Tom Tyler, a social psychologist and researcher speaking on campus today at Martha Van Rensselear Hall, argues that how officers treat individuals and make decisions matter more to people than whether the outcomes of such decisions are beneficial or detrimental. People generally want procedural justice when dealing with the police; they want to be treated with dignity and respect, to know authorities care about their needs and concerns and to feel like they have the ability to explain their actions before officers make decisions about what to do.
I would like to redefine “tough on crime”: It should mean those who are most effective at reducing crime, not those most effective at punishing crime. Any serious attempt at reforming the criminal justice system must examine the psychological aspects of human behavior and consider incarceration as one tool in a larger compliance system; effective preventative methods can severely reduce criminal justice resource use and reform the incarceration epidemic in the U.S.
Benjamin Keep, a third-year law student at Cornell, administers Barely Legal, a column featuring a rotating cast of law students that appears alternate Fridays this semester. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org