The horrific shootings in the last few months have generated calls for reform of our criminal justice system. Although change is necessary, we need to implement new policies based on what works rather than what feels good.
The community’s knee-jerk reaction demanding the incarceration of more people for longer periods of time is a path we have been down before and it hasn’t worked.
According to an Albuquerque Journal article published in January of this year, New Mexico has the second highest violent crime rate in the country. This unenviable statistic is nothing new.
We have been the leaders of violent crime for decades and previous attempts to incarcerate our way out of the problem have failed. In the last 15 years we have increased penalties for many crimes and reduced the numbers of people who are released early from prison.
In 1999 our Legislature passed the “truth in sentencing act,” which dramatically lengthened the sentences of violent offenders by removing “good time” incentives. From 2007 to 2013 the average length of time served by a New Mexico prisoner increased by 37 percent while nationally the trend has been in the opposite direction.
Texas has realized the futility of mass incarceration and recently closed three prisons, saving millions in the process.
It is a natural instinct to seek greater punishment for people committing crimes against our community; however, it does little to stem the endless supply of young offenders. It is time we take a different approach and stop repeating the mistakes of our past.
We must stop pandering to the tough on crime narrative and face the real issues head on. We need to start directing resources at preventing crime and providing positive intervention when people first enter the criminal justice system.
Our community needs to recognize violent crime has its roots in the way we treat our children. Underprivileged kids with absent parents – often incarcerated absent parents – are treated as criminals at younger ages.
Police now routinely patrol our schools with zero-tolerance policies resulting in the handcuffing and detention of kids who 20 years ago would never have been thought criminals. Our politically motivated prosecutors use new laws to charge children “as adults” when we can plainly see they are children. A lack of resources in our public schools and social service systems creates an environment where the seeds of future crime are sown.
Long prison sentences do nothing to address these failures. Once a child enters the criminal justice system he or she is held in juvenile facilities that are ill equipped to deal with his or her problems.
Instead, a culture of punishment, mixed with poorly paid staff, results in the civil rights violations we read about in the newspapers; a young girl beaten by fellow detainees at the direction of a guard; a young boy held in solitary confinement until he becomes psychotic; female guards having sex with teenage boys.
The stories are as endless as they are tragic to our community’s well-being.
The adult system is no better.
Last week we watched guards on video beating and kicking a defenseless woman who lay shackled on the floor in the Metropolitan Detention Center. Solitary confinement has become the go-to punishment in our prisons and jails despite international calls for it to stop.
The Department of Corrections cannot hire people to staff our prisons because their budget is so small, and corruption is allowed to fill the void of low pay. As a result, our recidivism rates are higher than the national average.
The answer is in front of us.
We must invest in our children before they enter the system. When the system does intervene it needs to do so in a dignified and humane way that promotes rehabilitation. Instead of paying for more prison beds we should invest in mental health treatment facilities.
We must stop thinking in terms of punishment alone and instead concentrate on the long-term health of the community.
Our prisoners eventually do return to our streets. It is our job to make sure they return better than they went in.