A “reimagined” justice system that shifts from punishment to social justice as its central operating principle can be the most effective long-term means of ending the harms inflicted by the current system on millions of Americans, according to one of the nation’s leading experts on mass incarceration.
Bruce Western, a professor of sociology at Columbia University and co-director of the Columbia Justice Lab, argues that while the justice reform movement to date has moved many courts, correctional institutions and law enforcement agencies away from the hardline strategies of recent decades, fundamental change requires policymakers to “cut the connections between incarceration, poverty and racial inequality.”
That involves, in turn, thinking “outside of traditional justice agencies,” Western wrote in a paper released as part of Square One, a multi-disciplinary project aimed at generating new ideas about justice reform.
“A reimagined justice system will concede some jurisdiction to other agencies—departments of housing, child services, public health, education and labor [so that] criminal justice becomes social justice, and the goals of promoting safety and reducing the harms of violence are continuous with providing order, predictability, and material security in daily life.”
Square One was launched last fall by Arnold Ventures (formerly the Laura and John Arnold Foundation) and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Western’s paper was the first of a set of papers released under the auspices of Square’s One’s “Executive Session on the Future of Justice Policy,” which has assembled about two dozen researchers, practitioners, policy makers, advocates, and community representatives to meet periodically and “generate and cultivate new ideas” for reforming the system.
Western noted that despite the impressive reductions in incarceration rates—from a peak of 762 people per 100,000 in 2007 to 695 people per 100,000 in 2018—the U.S. still imprisoned more individuals than any other country in the world, with some 2.17 million behind bars and another 4.85 million on probation and parole (according to 2018 figures).
The victims of what he called the “punitive revolution” that took shape in the 1980s were overwhelmingly— and disproportionately— black, male and poor.
‘Vast Apparatus’ For Punishment
Only a fundamental transformation of government policy can reverse a justice system that has become “a vast apparatus organized to punish, exclude and close off opportunities,” Western wrote.
He said the rethinking needed to begin by “settling accounts” with America’s history of systemic racial oppression that grew out of slavery, and has continued in various and more subtle forms ever since—most importantly by forcing people of color into an endless loop of housing and educational segregation, poverty, crime and constricted employment opportunities.
“Of all the different ways that policymakers could have responded to the problem of crime, a course was chosen that greatly curtailed the liberty of a segment of the population who have had to fight for their freedom from the beginning,” Western wrote.
But economic inequity is the principal driver of today’s dysfunctional system, he added, noting that “inequalities in criminal punishment have grown most along economic, not racial lines.”
According to Western, the only way to break the cycle, therefore, is to replace punishment with a “socially integrative” approach, which he defined as creating conditions in America’s poorest communities for families and individuals to prosper and develop the kind of social “connections” that provide economic security and public safety.
Although this seemed to imply major new public investment in housing, schools and employment, Western focused on grassroots policy changes that involved local justice agencies developing close partnerships with community services and institutions working with at-risk individuals and families.
For instance, “in the aftermath of violence, our courts and correctional agencies should help rebuild the social membership of victims and offenders alike—both of whom have been alienated from the social compact by violence.”
Other changes such as ending money bail, reforming probation and parole, and reducing the burden of court fines and fees on the justice-involved were also important tools for reform, he wrote.
But, added Western, most important of all was changing the social and economic framework under which the justice system currently operates in order for the various strands of reform ideas to take root.
“With social integration as a basic principle of justice reform, we can revisit the libertarian, scientific and ethical reform impulses of the current period,” he wrote.
Western’s paper is available for downloading here.