|Image by Griszka Niewiadomski|
I finally went back to college in 2017. My husband got a job at a college, so I got an employee scholarship. Now, obviously, my major has always been planned to be psychology, but I could only take that as a minor at this college, so I majored in Criminal Justice (a full return to my original Forensics/Psychology double plan when I was 18, in a way, only from a different angle). I completed all of my CJ classes, and I only had 3 electives left (I was planning to take Ancient Egyptian Art and two more psych classes) to graduate when my husband changed jobs. We were going to pay for me to finish when we lost our home and it became impossible. So, I have all the pieces of a degree without the actual degree itself (which is depressing AF). I was set to graduate manga cum laude with a 4.0 and having made the Dean's List both years. I'm bitter, but I still have the education, and the reason I got it was to share it.
I made a tweet thread that received a request to make it into an article because it explains in mostly accessible language a bit of the history of the U.S. criminal justice system and why it's not prisons, but our model, that is so toxic and why. This is a copy of that thread.
Original question: "I'm not against prison abolishment especially for non-violent crimes but my problem as a victim is that I have yet to hear workable solution for the more violent crimes. What is the alternative to prison for them? Because I have yet to have this answered."
The following response has not been edited from the original reply beyond choosing line breaks and removing thread-continuing ellipses:
Restorative and Reparative justice systems, which still incorporate jail and prisons, but not by the horrific retributive U.S. model. There is no reason not to make prisons communities that teach and rehabilitate, other than $$. It works in other countries.
There ARE crimes that don't allow for rehabilitation, or criminals themselves that are too dangerous to help. It happens. But those models I spoke of address that as well.
It's not prisons, but the system which we use that's the problem.
I was a criminal justice major for this very thing. I'm a strong supporter of system reform. I wasn't actually expecting American classes to be a lot of help, but it turns out that we know all of this, and the people running the system don't care. What they care about is being re-elected. So, it kinda works like this:
People hate crime, for obvious reasons. But people also seek out others to hate/look down on, very often to feel better about their own shortcomings. Criminals are cool to hate. After all, they've hurt people in a way that we've defined as deserving of punishment. Through most of history, this has been usually flogging, dismemberment, or death. Then we decided "hey, maybe that's too much. Maybe it's better to lock them up so they can reconsider their errors, at least for smaller stuff."
This was really recent, like more recent than the U.S. itself. Just locking people up didn't do a lot, and flogging and death continued to be used more. Then the idea of work for rehabilitation came up. It was the "idle hands" thought, but also a belief that training for work after would help keep people out of crime and give them more work opportunities. Eventually, flogging was dismissed as cruel in the mid-20th century, and the 60s saw it abolished. The view shifted to a more sympathetic outlook for offenders, realizing that these are people who have made mistakes (at least the white ones). So, a push was made for rehabilitative justice. The thing is, we didn't really know what worked for that, and so, the crime rate didn't change.
Then more vice crimes started being added (will of the people), and the crime rate went up accordingly. People didn't see "we have more laws;" they saw "we have more crime." People got scared. They started demanding "something be done."
Eventually this led to the "tough on crime" rhetoric. This sounded good to the people with money, of course. They didn't see themselves as criminals, even as they committed the same vice crimes, theft, and traffic crimes that increasingly saw people getting locked up.
Thing is, what people always really agreed should be punished were the harmful crimes: burglary, rape, murder, etc., but there were all these theories about how they were tied to vice crimes, etc. So, this is how the average citizen started supporting the rich minority's control through laws that they had the most influence on. Because police funding is directly tied to monetary contributions, those who give the most get a free pass. Without their money, the police can't operate. So, the rich and the majority cultures control policing and law making. The same goes for prison policy. When the mob demands "something needs to be done," then policy makers do it. They find "acceptable targets" (ftr, these are taught by field training officers, not the policing institutions themselves--it's post-education police culture that leads to targeting of minorities, sex workers, etc.). The numbers in prison going up comforts the mob.
By the 80s, people had forgotten that these prisoners were people, their neighbors and potential friends. They got mad about "three hots and a cot" and anything they saw as "underserved," ignoring/ignorant to the fact that these people were the subject of ongoing experimentation, often through torture, and slave labor. The average person didn't KNOW this. They bought a fantasy of clean living, libraries, lounging around watching tv, food security, access to things many poor don't have, and they demanded worse conditions. They also were ignorant to how many people in there never did anything more than they themselves have done. Or even less.
So, the idea of switching to restorative justice, which allows lower punishment at the discretion of the victim, and prisons that mimic society so that when offenders return to the community, they are ADJUSTED to the community already rather than trapped in the prison culture nightmare that leads to recidivism (reoffending) and poor life quality? Americans get mad. They have been raised to believe in vengeance. That's what collectively has been associated with "justice."
Did you know the sex offender list is PROVEN to INCREASE sex crimes and prevent rehabilitation? Yet the same people who talk about CJ reform will talk about how mad they are when a rapist isn't put on the list. It makes them significantly more likely to rape again. The only sex crimes that are likely to be repeated are by pedophiles. That's the only group that doesn't respond at a high percentage to rehabilitative efforts (I don't have my papers/textbooks to pull the percentage, but recovery is low and requires voluntary submission to rehabilitation). Rape is a crime we want extinguished. So, people are unwilling to listen to data. Then we get to murder. Even murderers are rehabilitated successfully under restorative justice models that max out at 30 years. Again Americans want murderers to never see the light of day again. Thing is? Severe sentences like death and life imprisonment increase violent crime rates. This doesn't match the expectation, so you get backfire effect presenting the data.
It was really visible in the cops in my classes. They outright rejected all of this. They twisted things, using their bias and prejudice they brought to or acquired on the job. They sell that bias to the public. The public eats it up. People demand crime control (a failed model that we still practice) and policy makers deliver.
I'm sorry, that was a LOT of tweets to say public demand > policy NOT scientific data > policy.
I hope you wanted a whole ass condensed history of the system 😅 let me end with an article on better systems: https://businessinsider.com/why-norways-prison-system-is-so-successful-2014-12
And one more thing: The two countries with the harshest crime control models are the U.S. and Australia. These are also the two countries with the highest incarceration and recidivism rates.