For too long, that rhetoric has been fulfilled with knee-jerk policies that play to emotions and our worst human instincts of revenge. We now have over three decades worth of data that shows those reactions have not only been ineffective, but they’ve also contributed to cycles of crime making the problem worse. We’ve been tough on people who commit a crime but not tough on the essence of crime. We’ve been selectively retributive, but we haven’t come close to securing justice for all.
Thankfully, a more thoughtful and nuanced approach to criminal justice is emerging, fueled by an actual understanding of the causes of criminality and methods that can interrupt it.
Unlike failed, bloated, big government programs, such as the death penalty or mandatory minimums, these new solutions are cost-effective; address root problems such as trauma, mental illness, and addiction; and have the ability to deter violence before it occurs.
For a number of years, thought leaders have been working to transform how we understand and deal with violence, reframing it in its proper context of a public health crisis. Community outreach leaders and violence interrupters, frequently formerly incarcerated themselves, have found success in partnering with law enforcement and nonprofits as they entrench themselves in communities that still suffer under escalated violence.
Newark, New Jersey, is one city that has embraced these strategies.
Organizations like the Newark Community Street Team and the Newark Anti-Violence Coalition provide trauma-informed responses to violence, including high-risk conflict mediation, retaliation prevention, and the brokering of social services that steer individuals away from violence and into more positive outlets like mentorship and educational projects. Equal Justice USA’s Trauma to Trust training brings together police and community, including violence interrupters, to better understand how to coordinate responses to violence and trauma.
Often referred to as neighborhood change agents, these individuals and organizations are able to leverage their knowledge of a community to diffuse tensions, meet with gang members, and negotiate truces. Some, such as DLIVE (Detroit Life is Valuable Everyday), go to hospitals after a crime has been committed to work with those harmed and discourage retaliation. Programs like these are gaining traction across the nation in cities with higher rates of violence, and they are producing significant drops in homicides.
Strategies like these are especially effective in cities where trust between law enforcement and the community has broken down. By partnering with community-based programs, police are provided the opportunity to begin rebuilding those relationships and foster more open and communicative interactions with those they serve. This is imperative in order for law enforcement to encounter and prevent crime before it occurs.
States are also finding success with programs like mental health and drug courts.
For decades, when a person with a mental illness or a drug addiction first got swept into the criminal justice system, typically because of a petty crime, they did not receive treatment but rather served short sentences. Even just a few days in jail can greatly increase the chance that a person will recidivate, leading to a harsher sentence. The cycle then snowballs.
Now, thanks to diversion programs such as alternative courts, these individuals are directed to treatment programs instead of incarceration, nipping the cycle of crime and recidivism in the bud.
Solutions like these are just a few of the groundbreaking initiatives we are seeing in the age of criminal justice reform. Instead of wasting tens of millions a year (per state) on failed policies like capital punishment, which we know does not deter crime, states should instead redirect funds to initiatives like these and to the research and development of other approaches in this vein.
If it’s really about public safety, we should expect results, not rhetoric.
Hannah Cox is the National Manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. Hannah was previously Director of Outreach for the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market think tank. Prior to that, she was Director of Development for the Tennessee Firearms Association and a policy advocate for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.
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