How to Fix America's Broken Criminal Justice System

Article excerpt

Our ultra-costly and ultra-punitive system is neither protecting victims nor rehabilitating lawbreakers. It's time for a new approach, one that consolidates disparate components into unified local Public Safety Agencies that provide both justice and security at a much lower cost.

America's criminal justice system is deeply flawed. Beyond the harsh sentences and wrongful convictions (including innocents on death row), the system we've created fails to support victims or reform criminals. Furthermore, the entire system is rooted in a punitive approach to crime.

America, the land of the free, has the world's largest prison population (2.3 million) and its highest incarceration rate. And our overcrowded prisons are disproportionately filled with blacks and Hispanics, causing many urban communities to lose trust in a system they consider biased and racist.

In short, our criminal justice system is providing neither justice nor security.

These fundamental flaws have been ignored for years, but the staggering cost of fighting crime at a time when cities and states are going broke is forcing taxpayers to pay attention. People are right to ask: Why continue to perpetuate a disastrously expensive and largely ineffective approach to public safety? Isn't there a better way?

There is. But we have to be willing to dismantle our current piece-meal measures and replace them with an integrated model: a single Public Safety Agency (PSA) at the local level.

Current system: a heavy burden on taxpayers

Crime - and fighting it - is expensive. Taxpayers bear a heavy burden to fund the police and related emergency services (911, medical response, trauma centers), the courts, the correctional system, probation and parole agents, and social service agencies.

The costs of these services is exacerbated due to the system's built-in inefficiencies such as redundancies, turf battles, compartmentalization, lack of cooperation, and lack of integration. The relationship among various components - for example, between parole agents and social service agencies - is often adversarial. This undermines effectiveness and leaves those most in need of help caught in the middle.

Finally, the political incentives that pervade the system lead to a focus on superficial metrics achieved (arrests, convictions) - not lives changed. This focuses the system in a wrong direction and also neglects the prevention of crime because prevention cannot be quantified.

The net result is that victims and their traumatized families rarely receive adequate financial or psychological help. And criminals rarely get rehabilitated; instead they go to prisons that serve as virtual graduate schools for criminality. As a lieutenant in the Los Angeles Police Department, I have lost count of how many times I've seen repeat criminals on the road to jail again. Society ends up paying economically and morally.

A bold, new approach

PSAs would be a paradigm shift.

It would make law officers true servants of the public, enhance transparency in law enforcement operations, and provide proper support to the victims, law violators, and their families.

The PSA would prevent first-time offenders from getting hardened and hardened criminals from getting worse. It would break the cycle of crime. Additionally, the system would provide far superior services at a fraction of the cost of the present system. The PSA would represent a complete transformation in how government provides justice and safety to communities across America. In essence, it would be a person-centered, not crime-centered approach to law enforcement.

The PSA would be a comprehensive collaboration of all public- safety personnel. Sworn officers, prosecuting and defense attorneys, emergency response teams, child and family services, social-welfare agents, community-service specialists, rehabilitation, job training, drug- and alcohol-abuse counselors, negotiators, psychological counselors, and probation and parole agents would all work together in the same building with the same mission. …