Four Principles of Smart Justice

Citizens in Spokane have been keeping very busy resisting the move to build an expensive new jail. So far, we’ve helped to remove the project from the ballot for the rest of 2011. Time to party? Not so much. Best prepare for Round Two.

At some point, we began saying not only that we don’t want a new jail, but in fact there is something we DO want, something we now say we are not getting. And that something we have called “Smart Justice.”

We’ve even acted like we know what we mean. But words like “smart” and “justice,” alone or worse yet in combination, can be hard to define. They are among the most positive words in our language. Both words embody cultural ideals. They positively ooze with the way things ought to be, and we like to think the way things are, but know full well they are not.

You can bet we will be talking a lot about smart justice in Round Two, so we’d best decide what WE want it to mean. If we lose ownership of our own rhetoric, we will need more than smart justice to save us from swift justice. So here are my Four Principles Of Smart Justice:

1. Don’t incarcerate anybody if you can help it. Our prisons and jails are a disgrace and they are operated as punitive institutions. They help no one and harm many, including those who work there. As Gandhi brilliantly observed, “An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.” We must determine who to incarcerate in a whole new way. Smart justice only incarcerates those who are an immediate danger to self or others. Incarceration can be seen as a safety measure. We should ask, “Who is safer because this person is in custody?”

2. Invest in alternatives to incarceration, not in bricks and mortar. The United States incarcerates one in every twenty of it’s population, way more than other nations. Maybe we just have more prison space? Or perhaps we are just safer than they are?

Of course, some groups get more and some less incarceration per capita, distributed along racial, ethnic and economic lines, as with most things, whether blessing or curse. This proclivity for locking people up is expensive and lately has spawned a whole new prisons-for-profit industry. Locking people up ought not be a growth industry.

3. Invest in rule-breakers. Let’s close the proverbial “revolving door.” I mean, there is a reason guards tell releasing inmates they will keep their beds warm, leave the light on, wait up, or in some other combination of words, that they expect to see them back soon.

Scaring them away has proven ineffective. Time for a new strategy: hook them. Just like the rest of us are hooked: time to try the golden handcuffs. Instead of taking everything away from them so they have nothing to lose, let’s help them get their lives in order. They will have to tell us what that looks like, but first we will have to ask. This will be new territory for our justice and corrections workers. One thing we will need to do more of is listen. This will be a challenge for many, especially long-time workers and long-time cons.

But just for starters, there are some obvious places to look:

Many rule-breakers lack basic education. Getting a GED halved reoffending in a long-term federal study. An all-out assault on reoffending will focus on education.

Many rule-breakers lack employment and employable skills. A smart justice system will prioritize preserving employment and developing it where lacking.

Many rule-breakers have drug or alcohol problems. A smart justice system will treat these as public health problems, and respond with treatment options rather than punishment.

The same can be said for the mentally-ill who tragically find themselves incarcerated. Or the mentally-challenged, and other groups disproportionately impacted by our fixation on custody as cure. We use incarceration when less-expensive alternatives would work better.

4. Finally, distinguish between punishment and community safety as reasons for incarceration. Having done so, choose wisely to favor community safety as the primary motive for incarceration going forward.

These four principles are a place to begin in our quest for Smart Justice. But they are just the beginning.

Roseanne Lasater