Time to Reform Our Criminal Justice System
By Kathy Fox, UVM Professor and VCJR Board of Directors
As a board member of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, I have been asked by some people why I am so passionate about criminal justice reform. Here is why. First of all, we have a system that is very expensive (in Vermont, for example, it costs $60,000 per year to incarcerate one individual, and that is not including the police and court costs, etc.) but we have poor outcomes for our investment.
By that I mean, what we do does not work — it does not lead to greater public safety or less crime. It does not rehabilitate folks. Research shows that, all things being equal, a prison sentence actually makes people more likely to re-offend. So does that mean I am saying let’s just close the prisons and let everyone free? No. But what I am saying is this: We need to think much harder about who we incarcerate, why, and for how long. We should use it only for those who are too dangerous to live among us. A majority of those in prison can be supervised in the community more effectively, less expensively, and with better results for families and communities. In Europe for example, they don’t really have “life sentences.” The most someone might get would be 10-14 years for the most serious crimes. What is their re-offense rate like compared with ours? I think you can guess. So what amazes me is how happy we are to just keep punishing people to satisfy our anger, and to spend a lot of tax dollars to do so — tax dollars that could go to higher education or parenting programs or any number of initiatives that might impact criminal offending in the first place. We do not insist on good outcomes from our justice system. I think we shoot ourselves in the collective foot by happily pouring money into a system just to get our pound of flesh. In many cases, we contribute to our own future victimization or tax burden.
This does not even begin to touch the issues of disparity in the system, all the way from police traffic stops to sentencing and parole. I am a professor of sociology, who studies criminal justice, but I did not come to this area of research subject with a strong opinion about racial disparity — it was only when I looked at the data over years and years. The evidence is simply overwhelming, perhaps more clear than in any other system, that the outcome one can expect based on race and income is astonishingly disparate. As an educated white woman with resources, I can expect a different result for my misbehaviors than someone in a different position. And that is just not fair. The Constitution guarantees equal protection under the law. (On a side note, this is why I wholeheartedly support the Black Lives Matter movement, and believe everyone should. Can we honestly argue that we treat black lives as if they matter as much as white lives in this country?)
If we are going to take away a person’s liberty, we should do so carefully, judiciously, and with restraint.
And finally, for me it’s a basic human rights issue. If we are going to take away a person’s liberty, we should do so carefully, judiciously, and with restraint. It is or should be a big deal. The U.S. comprises 5 percent of the world’s total population, but accounts for a whopping 25 percent of the incarcerated population for the entire planet. Research consistently finds that most adults have done something at one point in their lives for which they could receive a prison sentence. So the difference between the “guilty” and the “innocent” is not as clear as we pretend. Certainly we criminalize too many things. And certainly we incarcerate some people who do not need to be in prison. A fairly typical situation for an inmate is a person doing time for a financial crime committed to support an addiction to an illegal drug. There is no evidence to support the notion that this person’s underlying problem — their addiction or their poverty — will be helped by a prison stint.
As a humanist, I believe in the fundamental dignity of all humans, even those who offend us the most. I believe everyone deserves a second chance (Jesus did too), and everyone can change if given the right tools, and the support of the community. Our current system diminishes that prospect. Vermont is a small, innovative state that could embrace laws and policies that reflect what research shows will work to help us all. We must radically reform our criminal justice system.