We can rethink criminal justice

The views expressed in this article are the views of the author.

“To protect and to serve” is the official motto of the Los Angeles Police Department, and other police departments have adopted a similar mantra. We could have a long and arduous conversation about whether that ideal is the goal of all police departments. However, my question is why is the professed goal of law enforcement in the U.S. focused on protection instead of rehabilitation? Certainly, the idea of protection seems to be integral in our conceptualization of criminal justice. The people who are doing wrong are prosecuted and receive consequences for their transgressions, for having harmed others within their community by refusing to follow laws that were put in place for the common good.

However, I raise this question: Why does this system prioritize enforcing the law over protecting the citizen? Or maybe the question is, “How does one switch from being ‘the protected’ to becoming someone from whom others need to be protected? Simply put, some people commit certain crimes that deserve immediate punishment. That’s fair. Even so, punishment does not have to be at the center of our vision for criminal justice. Instead, we could focus more on navigating the best way to support the people that have been deemed criminals. That seems counterintuitive even as I type it, but many don’t consider the idea that the people we so quickly withdraw support and protection from may be those who need it most.

As an example, instead of rushing to judge and castigate people who sell illegal drugs, a better idea could be to solve the underlying issues that could cause them to turn to selling drugs. We could find some form of recourse that does not involve them spending years in a cell for minor drug charges. 

As another example, some state laws require that one register as a sex offender as a repercussion for public urination. The point of making public urination illegal is just to prevent chaos, and it should not be used to make people suffer. While some states do not require it,  the door is left open to bring about a harsh judgment of someone for what could be chalked up as irresponsible decision making. 

Certain opportunities to support people who have committed crimes exist within our criminal justice system already, such as community service, drug or alcohol treatment programs, attending certain lectures or courses or meeting with victims or families affected by similar crimes.

I am proposing a radical expansion of our willingness to use some of these alternative methods. The whole idea of trying to ensure that the punishment fits the crime negates the idea that some laws are more for order than to punish people. We do not have to let actions go without consequences, but the definition of consequence is the result of an action. We could try harder to make the results of peoples’ actions that they be offered opportunities to change and improve and reevaluate. We could also do the same ourselves and question what might lead people to commit some of the crimes that they do. Our houses have too much glass for the boulders we cast.