Our Criminal Justice System Is Built to Inflict Pain. Here's How We Can Heal It.


By Van Jones, CNN


California's San Quentin is one of the oldest prisons in the country. Located on a parcel of land jutting out into the San Francisco Bay, the mammoth 167-year-old facility has a lonely and intimidating look from the outside -- and on the inside, it's just as forlorn.

None of this should be surprising; that's how our criminal justice system has designed these facilities. American prisons are built on the idea of retributive justice, where the primary goal is to punish and seek vengeance. It's a model that aims to incapacitate people who commit crimes and create powerful, painful incentives for them to act right in the future. The bottom line: You harm someone, and we harm you. You hurt others, and you will hurt.

This approach makes some intuitive sense. The problem is that adding harm to harm inevitably produces more harm. Too often, people come out of prison bitter -- not better. While they're locked away, their children suffer and may be led astray. And rather than derailing the cycle of violence and trauma, our system's retributive approach may often support and even accelerate that destructive cycle: According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 68% of state prisoners are arrested again within three years.

This system also isn't good for victims of crime. Retribution intentionally damages the offender, but it can also accidentally leave victims with new injuries by neglecting their needs and silencing their voices. In the present system, victims and their loved ones are barely involved in the process of meting out justice. As soon as the crime is committed, a huge professional apparatus kicks in, and a massive, inhuman bureaucracy takes over. The police, lawyers, investigators, jurors and judges all start doing whatever they think is right. Neither the crime victims nor their family members get to ask their own questions, determine the punishment or seek an apology. During a trial, practically everyone talks except the people actually impacted.

After a trial, those convicted of a crime are sometimes legally forbidden to contact the people they hurt, even to offer an apology. The system attempts to shield survivors from unwanted contact with the wrongdoer, but that also robs victims of the opportunity to ask the questions that haunt them: "Why?" "What were you thinking?" "What were my son's last words?"

As a result, the amount of communication between the two parties is practically nonexistent -- except for an impact statement from the victims, delivered right before the guilty party is sentenced.

We know that this system isn't working. To help cure what ails our justice system, reform advocates say, we need to think differently. We need to think about restoration.

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