Retribution fails reality test

By Michael S. Gelacak

 Michael S. Gelack is the immediate past Vice Chairman of the United States Sentencing Commission and former Staff Director of the United States Senate Judiciary Committee. He is a nationally recognized expert and consultant on sentencing and criminal justice matters.


As we approach the millennium, those of us involved with and concerned about the criminal justice system ought to reflect on the current state of affairs and the question of where do we go from here. The effects of the "tough on crime" policies of the past decade and the "lock-em-up" mentalities of our legislators need to be examined. We should ask ourselves as a society why we have this tremendous need to over-punish and what can be done to return some compassion to our reasoning and to our policies.

We have recently seen another barrage of media detailing the reduction in the crime rate and attributing success to get-tough policies. If I believed that for one second, I would be leading the effort to further toughen our laws. Unfortunately, all the news stories and statistics in the world cannot change reality.

Over the past century the crime rate has been fairly static, rising and falling in certain instances depending upon the economic circumstances of the time. Here's a message to the politicians in terms they might understan­­"It's the economy, stupid".

We are experiencing the greatest economic prosperity in the history of the world, and the criminal justice policy makers would have us believe that crime is down because of "tough" policies. If they really believe that, they are not only smoking something, they are inhaling.

The sad reality is that even in the face of this fantastic economic prosperity, we have more people involved with drugs than we did when we instituted these draconian sentences. That is a simple fact. There is nothing new about get-tough policies. We have tried all this before and only to watch it fail-just as it has today. The only thing we are succeeding at is incarcerating greater numbers of our citizens.

We are about to have 2 million people behind bars, the majority of whom are nonviolent offenders. Another 4+ million are in the grips of the criminal justice system-either awaiting trial, serving suspended sentences, or on parole. There is something seriously wrong with this approach. Those numbers are staggering, and we ought to recognize that. Clearly we pay a high price for very limited results. The single greatest cost is simply the need to house these inmates. This cost alone now exceeds spending for education in many of our states. But the burden does not end there. Many of these inmates represent a potential loss to society as a result of their denial of any opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to their community. Even so, the cost and the lost opportunities pale next to the effects of destroyed families and parentless children.

I know that the self-righteous will say these prisoners deserve no consideration because, after all, they are criminals, and they made their choices; now they should have to live with them. To that chorus I will only say I have always believed that incarceration should be the last resort of a civilized society, not the first.

We have it backwards, and it is time we realized that. We do not need a prison industrial complex in this country. We do not need to indiscriminately lock people up for ever-increasing terms of years. It serves no purpose other than retribution, and we ought to be better than that.

Prisons do not improve people. Many leave with drug problems equal to or worse than when they went in because of the lack of treatment. Few will learn marketable skills, and those that do will see them tainted by the stigma of a criminal record. Many will be disenfranchised and return to the conditions of poverty that led them to crime in the first place. Others will ultimately come out seeking some sort of retribution of their own for what they view as unjust and unwarranted sentences. This does not do any of us any good.

There are other ways to deal with many of these individuals, and we ought to give them a try. We KNOW that TREATMENT WORKS for drug abusers-not for all, but for many. We could find alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders. We could find a way to get elderly prisoners out of jail in many instances-it is simply too costly to keep them there, as long as they are not a danger to society. We need to find a release mechanism to give inmates some hope of relief from lengthy sentences if they no longer need to be incarcerated. We could do something about our conspiracy laws. We should remember that the true measure of a society is how it treats the least of its citizens.

The sad news is that all of this will take time and constant effort. It will not happen overnight or even soon. But it will happen. I believe that, and I believe the public can and will be educated to achieve that result.