Last weekend, approximately 6,000 non-violent inmates were to be released from federal prisons across the nation, reigniting a discussion about our justice system and how we, as a nation, address the crime we face on a daily basis.  While every new politician proclaims an increasing need to be “tough on crime,” we should take a step back and ask ourselves: what does it mean to be tough?  What is in the best interest of our communities, those convicted, and future generations?  When should we use a rehabilitative approach to address criminal conduct instead of a strict penalty approach?

To begin with, the United States has the largest population of inmates in the world, and our prisons are severely overcrowded due, in large part, to drug-related violations that garner lengthy sentences.  For an individual with a second or third drug conviction, those sentences can last a decade or more.

However, when an estimated one-third of our prison population deals with mental illness and substance abuse, one begins to wonder.  Are we more concerned with getting these people the help and treatment they need to equip them to change their lives, or do we just want to keep them locked away, out of sight and out of mind?  Take a moment to ponder the thoughts of Stanley Richards, a former inmate, from a recent NPR interview discussing the conundrum that leads to cycling in and out of prison:

“They’re coming home to a new world.  They’re coming home to a new place—a new place to compete economically, to find jobs.  The skills and experiences they had before they went in probably are not relevant today.  Housing probably is a huge challenge.  Many of them after eight or nine years either don’t have family because family passed on or their ties to family have been messed up.  And then third is mental health.  Prison is significant trauma, and people have to deal with that.  So people come home trying to reclaim their lives.  It’s extremely challenging.”

Many of these types of offenders also have different core needs than those incarcerated for violent crimes.  Law enforcement officials note that few jails or prisons are able to provide the type of steady care that those with drug, alcohol, and mental health problems require if they are to change.

A coalition of 130 police chiefs around the country are now examining the current approach to law enforcement and asking, “what does the community want?” One approach to policing that has been both lauded and criticized is George Kelling’s “broken windows.”  The idea behind it is fairly simple: a building’s window gets broken, but it does not get fixed.  That failure to fix it is a signal that no one cares what happens to the building, and before long, the rest of the building’s windows are broken, the walls get covered in graffiti, and fixtures are stolen.  In a community, that translates to small crimes getting ignored by police, and later down the road, a higher and more serious crime rate within the community.  Generally, criticism has been of police’s overreaction to small crimes.  In New York, it lead to a “stop and frisk” policy that appeared to disproportionately target minorities and violate constitutional rights.

No one should have to forfeit his or her rights to feel safe.  We want the police to become more integrated in our communities so that each side knows and respects the other and what is best for all involved: police officer, neighbor, victim, law-breaker.   We should respect the laws and those enforcing them; take care of our neighbors; make a victim whole as fairly as possible; determine whether a defendant needs help, a proportionate kick in the pants, or a mixture of the two.  Kelling says it this way:

“[This] is a tactic, an essential part of community policing that works with the community to identify problems and set priorities. . . . We don’t want police to just be making arrests.  We want them to find solutions and at times that solution is simply deciding not to do anything, or saying, ‘You know you’re not supposed to be doing this, move along.’ . . .[S]uccessful policing is measured by the absence of crime, not the activities once it occurred.”

It’s going to be a challenge for everyone involved, but we need to re-evaluate our current approach to crime and establish our priorities.  We want to start the conversation right here: what do you see as a priority for your community, and what is a step that we can all take to make that happen?