Prison Reform–Designing a Horse by Committee and Not Expecting a Camel

New York Times Editorial
Reviewing Criminal Justice

America’s criminal justice system needs repair. Prisons are overcrowded, sentencing policies are uneven and often unfair, ex-convicts are poorly integrated into society, and the growing problem of gang violence has not received the attention it deserves. For these and other reasons, a bill introduced last week by Senator Jim Webb, Democrat of Virginia, should be given high priority on the Congressional calendar.

The bill, which has strong bipartisan support, would establish a national commission to review the system from top to bottom. It is long overdue, and should be up and running as soon as possible.

The United States has the highest reported incarceration rate in the world. More than 1 in 100 adults are now behind bars, for the first time in history. The incarceration rate has been rising faster than the crime rate, driven by harsh sentencing policies like “three strikes and you’re out,” which impose long sentences that are often out of proportion to the seriousness of the offense.

OK as far as this goes and certainly something long past the need of doing. And then the clinker;

The commission would be made up of recognized criminal justice experts, and charged with examining a range of policies that have emerged haphazardly across the country and recommending reforms.
In addition to obvious problems like sentencing, the commission would bring much-needed scrutiny to issues like the special obstacles faced by the mentally ill in the system, as well as the shameful problem of prison violence.

–read entire article–

__________________________________________________So the people charged with with examining a range of policies that have emerged haphazardly across the country and recommending reforms are the same people who built and executed the policies that are haphazardly enforced across the nation. They will no doubt include representatives of the ‘three strikes‘ non-baseball rule, as well as ‘established‘ experts who now run the prisons for profit corporations and a sprinkling of death-penalty advocates.

Nice touch and it’s sure to result in an amazingly structured camel, no matter that the aim was a show horse.

It would be refreshing, if not downright stimulating to the discussion, to add a few non-professionals as well as those who are possibly less recognized but closer to the bone of the issue. My personal suggestions would include;

  • a smattering of actual prisoners
  • a boot-camp drill sergeant or two
  • a couple of retired wardens
  • a journalist, maybe even two who have written widely and intelligently on the subject
  • several international criminologists from countries having a more successful record than our own
  • and a jury; a full dozen lay-people selected by lottery and subject to the normal exclusions pertinent to jury selection, to weigh in on the evidence presented.

What would that total? An extra 24 or 25 citizens from among the interested parties who will be affected by the resulting recommendations? Why not?

Let’s actually give justice a try for once.

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