By David Rogers and Kerry Naughton, Contributing Columnists
America’s criminal justice debate is broken in two.
With just 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. leads the world in the use of incarceration with 25 percent of the planet’s prison population. And there are fierce advocates on both sides of the debate — for less imprisonment and more.
Efforts to make much-needed reforms to criminal justice and public safety policies are stunted by a pitched battle among certain advocates that can make the partisanship of Republicans and Democrats seem like child’s play.
A handful of tough-on-crime, victims advocates have resisted movement toward more cost-effective strategies for reducing crime, which they view as less punitive. Meanwhile, many criminal justice reform organizations working to address the problems of mass incarceration have done little to develop an agenda that improves support for crime victims. While the two sides stubbornly defend their positions, our most vulnerable communities are held hostage in a failing status quo.
We need to confront the false choice between meeting the needs of crime victims and reforming failed criminal justice and corrections policies.
The dramatic rise in the use of incarceration has come at a severe cost. Bloated prison budgets and broken criminal justice policies are thriving as states are dismantling education budgets and the social safety net, including services for crime victims. In the past two decades, state general fund spending on prisons increased by more than 300 percent which outpaced other essential government services from education to transportation and public assistance. Only Medicaid spending has grown faster.
America’s increased use of incarceration has been driven by expensive and counter-productive tough-on-crime policies, such as mandatory minimum sentences and three strikes laws. The tough-on-crime philosophy has been adopted by politicians and public figures, including some crime victims. Although these high-profile victim advocates rarely represent the perspective of the majority of people harmed by crime and violence — women, low-income communities, and communities of color — they have had a disproportionately significant influence providing policymakers with the emotional momentum needed to pass regressive sentencing laws.
There is a serious irony to this dynamic.
Research clearly shows that tough-on-crime policies are not the most effective way to build safe communities and reduce the number of victims. It is smarter to invest in proven strategies that hold people who commit crime accountable while also investing in prevention, risk assessments, drug and alcohol treatment and re-entry services for formerly incarcerated people. The exaggerated emphasis on prisons puts our limited public safety resources in the wrong place and, tragically, it also short-changes crime victims.
Crime victims need protection and safety a voice in the accountability and justice process, and access to services, counseling, shelter, and the support needed to rebuild their lives. These critical needs are put in jeopardy by the exaggerated growth in prison spending.
Oregon’s Department of Corrections budget eats up the majority of the state’s public safety dollars while thousands of requests for emergency shelter from violence go unmet in Oregon because domestic violence programs lack funding and capacity. The tragedy of so many victims being turned away from help while attempting to flee abuse and protect their children is the product of a public safety system that is out of balance.
Inreasingly in Oregon, victim advocates are recognizing that the status quo is not the best approach to preventing crime and victimization, while advocates who have focused on skyrocketing prison growth are beginning to authentically incorporate crime victims’ needs into their agenda. We will not fix our broken approach to public safety without this kind of proactive effort to find common ground.
We can keep our communities safe, reduce our over-reliance on incarceration and improve public safety outcomes. In the process, states across the country (including Oregon) can save billions of dollars in incarceration costs that can be re-invested into victims’ services and other vital parts of our public safety system.
This can be possible with a new paradigm for public safety policy that cuts through the rhetoric and moves beyond sides. It is time.
If you are interested in more information about this analysis, please look for a concept paper called Moving Beyond Sides: The Power and Potential of a New Public Safety Policy Paradigm, which can be found on the website of Partnership for Safety and Justice at www.safetyandjustice.org.
David Rogers is the executive director and Kerry Naughton is the crime survivors program director at Partnership for Safety and Justice. PSJ is a statewide, nonprofit advocacy organization dedicated to making Oregon’s approach to crime and public safety more effective and just.