There is a simplistic view of the world that some people have – that there are good, law-abiding citizens, and then there is a criminal class from whom those good people need to be protected against. This binary view of the world leads to dysfunctional policies like mandatory minimums, high incarceration rates, high recidivism and overcrowding of jails and other correctional facilities.
There is, however, an emerging understanding that the truth is far more nuanced and complicated than this, and that our society needs to challenge many assumptions about what the pathways should be for arrest, detention, trial and incarceration.
At both ends of the process – at the front end where people are arrested and detained ahead of court proceedings, through probation and supervision models that are either associated with prison sentences or alternatives to them, and all the way through to the timing and opportunity for final release, parole and the re-establishment of rights and economic opportunity, the simplistic view of the world does more harm not only to people caught up in the criminal justice system, but also to the community at large.
Lock ’em up
We’ve been conditioned to think in terms of “getting the bad guys off the street”, and in this context, notions of pretrial release are assumed to lead naturally to increased crime (since the bad guys are back on the street again, and can do nothing BUT commit more crime). The evidence suggests the opposite, however, when appropriate measures are put in place to consider individuals’ need to be detained and the costs to them and others of doing so.
We know that jails are overpopulated, and we should recognize the fiscal impact that this has on a community and our country as a whole, even if some refuse to consider the moral imperative to provide people with an assumption of innocence ahead of a trial. To house, feed, clothe and care for people for days, weeks or months while waiting for their opportunity to go before a court costs, (at the very least) the crowding out of so many other priorities for public funding and support.
Living in (unnecessary) fear?
But what of the risks of releasing people who have been arrested? Aren’t they a danger to society? The answer is, probably not, and if they are, we can, with a high level of certainty, make that assessment and prevent those people from being released.
In fact, it’s not simply that pretrial release of many arrestees has no impact on our safety, it’s that such measures may actually make us more safe. Individuals that spend more time in detention are more likely to engage in criminal behavior later. Recidivism rates go up the longer people stay in jail, away from family, friends, employment opportunities, church and other social networks.
For the safety of our community, we should strive to limit the time that anyone is exposed to and experiences detention, with clear exceptions for those who engage in violent crime or have a higher likelihood of not appearing for scheduled court appearances.