Criminal justice is such an emotional issue. Victims need to be treated with dignity, fairness, and respect and in many cases there is no way to make them whole. Additionally, public safety is a critical public need.
In my view, punishment is about the past and public safety is about the future. As a result, the two are barely related. And yet, in 1985, Colorado doubled all its prison sentences without the usual public deliberation process and without an understanding of the consequences. As a result, Colorado has spent billions of dollars incarcerating prisoners while getting perhaps only a nickel’s worth of public safety benefit from each of those dollars.
Drunks still litter our roads. Drugs are more in demand now than ever before. Domestic violence and child abuse still permeate many of our families. And when young people who can’t find jobs and, who admittedly may lack the job skills employers cherish, need cash they still break into cars, break into homes or businesses, or hold up banks. The fact that friends, relatives, or strangers are serving decades behind bars for similar offenses years ago is not dissuading them, and therefore barely making our communities safer. As a community we should take little solace in the fact that Inmate 123456 is no longer on the street driving drunk, selling drugs or breaking into homes when dozens of others stand in line to take his place in the black market or are resorting to criminal behavior as their solution when facing similar predicaments.
Tough on crime is expensive and senseless. Smart on crime is difficult, delicate and absolutely needed. Punishment is necessary, but it should be measured, appropriate and effective. Public safety should be paramount, but it is about eliminating the underlying causes, not smacking someone upside the head to the point they can’t get up after the fact. Treating mental illness will prevent more crime than all the DUI checkpoints combined. Compassion toward some of our inmates who committed serious crimes as children will permit us to devote more dollars toward real public safety.
I think our focus should be on achieving public safety instead of achieving the feeling of public safety that comes with locking someone up and throwing away the key. Ninety-seven percent of these folks come back to our communities at some point. Let’s make sure they come back as productive members of society not as threats to our safety.