Ways to Fix the Criminal Justice System
by Bo Lozoff
Our present methods of dealing with criminals
have not made society safer and crime-free,
rather they have made the problems worse.
A leading American prison reform activist
tells what we can do reverse this trend.
How can we reduce the frightening levels of
crime and violence that plague out society
today? The usual answer from politicians and
the media is that we have to be tougher on
crime. If we had the guts to crack down like,
say, those Singaporeans, then we'd straighten
this country out.
But that's just a myth, and a dangerous one,
because it is actually preventing us from
solving the crime problem. Here's the reality:
America now locks up prisoners at a rate five
times greater than most industrialized nations,
a rate of incarceration second only to Russia.
The number of inmates in state and federal
prisons has more than quadrupled, from fewer
than 200,000 in 1970 to 948,000 in 1993. Prisoners
currently sleep on floors, in tents, in converted
broom closets and gymnasiums, or in double
or triple bunks in cells that were designed
for one inmate. I have visited about 500 prisons
and, I can tell you, they are not country
clubs (though they certainly are a luxury
item: The average new prison cell costs $53,100
to construct). For the most part, they are
terrifying and miserable places that will
seem as shameful to us in a hundred years
as the infamous nineteenth-century "snake-pit"
insane asylums seem to us today.
Approximately 240,000 brutal rapes occur in
our prison system each year, and most of the
victims are young, nonviolent male inmates,
many of them teen-age first offenders. After
being raped, or "punked out," many
of these young men are forced to shave their
body hair and dress effeminately so they can
be sold among "roosters" as sexual
slaves for packs of cigarettes. This sometimes
continues for the entire length of their incarceration.
They are traumatized beyond imagination. Michael
Fay's caning in Singapore was child's play
compared to the reception he would have had
in nearly any state prison in America. We
are not soft on criminals.
The above, however, should not lead you to
believe that our prisons are teeming with
violent, dangerous people. Just the opposite:
More than half of all US prisoners are serving
time for non-violent offenses. Please let
that sink in, because it's probably not the
image you've received from the media. Instead,
we've been led to imagine a legion of dangerous
criminals cleverly plotting to get out and
hurt us again. The truth is that most prison
inmates are confused, disorganized, and often
pathetic individuals who would love to turn
their lives around if given a realistic chance.
Unfortunately many of those nonviolent offenders
will no longer he nonviolent by the time they
But perhaps the most pervasive myth distorting
our view of criminal justice is that increasing
arrests and imprisonment is an effective strategy
for reducing crime. Again, here's the shocking
reality: The rate of violent crime hasn't
significantly increased or decreased in the
past fifteen years. And yet, the prison population
in the US more than doubled during the l980s.
What's more, the threat of prison does not
seem to deter criminal behavior. Around 62
percent of all prison inmates nationwide are
arrested again within three years. Prisons
are not scaring criminals away from crime;
they are incapacitating them so they are hardly
fit for anything else.
In other words, the criminal justice system
that we're paying for so dearly simply isn't
working. And yet we keep on throwing more
money into it. So how do we start fixing what's
broken? Here are seven places to begin:
Learn to recognize the influence of socially
What I mean by socially sanctioned hatred
is simple: We human beings seem to have a
built-in temptation to objectify other groups
of people in order to feel superior to them
or to find a scapegoat for all our problems.
It's reflected in language, in words like
"nigger," "Faggot," "slant-eyes,"
"gook," and so on. Certainly, among
most of us, that kind of prejudicial speech
is not acceptable. And yet, among decent people,
from liberal to conservative, it is still
socially acceptable to call criminals "scum,"
"sleaze bags," or "animals."
We hear that one demented soul kidnapped and
killed a little girl, and a few weeks later,
when a teenager steals our car radio, we are
ready to strap the two of them together in
the gas chamber. "I'm sick of these animals,"
we say. "They're all alike. Let them
People who break the law are not all alike.
They are an enormously diverse group of human
Make drugs a public health problem instead
of a criminal justice problem.
Drug cases are clogging our nation's prisons.
Some 61 percent of federal prison inmates
are there for drug offenses, up from 18 percent
in 1980. And all this incarceration is doing
nothing to solve the drug problem. Many wardens,
judges, and other officials know this, but
it has become political suicide to discuss
We need to insist upon a more mature dialogue
about the drug problem. Keep in mind that
the high-level drug dealers aren't cluttering
up our prisons; they're too rich and smart
to get caught. They hire addicts or kids,
sometimes as young as eleven or twelve, to
take most of the risks that result in confinement.
But it's not the dealers who create the drug
problem anyway. Among the poor, drugs are
a problem of alienation and isolation, of
feeling unknown, unimportant, powerless, and
hopeless. Among the affluent, they are an
attempt to keep up with or escape from an
insanely frenzied lifestyle that has almost
nothing to do with simple human joys such
as friendship or hearing the birds sing.
We need to address these issues in ourselves,
our families, and our communities. At the
same time, we must press for changes in drug
laws. I'm not advocating that we "legalize"
all drugs, because it's not that simple. But
we do have to "decriminalize" their
use, treating the problem as the public-health
issue it is. Doing so would have tremendous
benefits. Without drug offenders, our prisons
would have more than enough room to hold all
the dangerous criminals. As a result, we wouldn't
need to build a single new prison, saving
us some $5 billion a year. And if we spent
a fraction of that money on rehabilitation
centers and community revitalization programs,
we'd begin to put drug dealers out of business
in the only way that will last -by drying
up their market.
Separate violent and nonviolent offenders
right from the start.
It's inconceivable that we routinely dump
nonviolent offenders in prison cells with
violent ones, even in local jails and holding
tanks. What are we thinking? I know one fellow
who was arrested for participating in a Quaker
peace vigil and was jailed in lieu of paying
a ten-dollar fine. In a forty-eight- hour
period, he was savagely raped and traded back
and forth among more than fifty violent prisoners.
That was twenty years ago, and since then
he has had years of therapy, and yet he has
never recovered emotionally. His entire life
still centers around the decision of one prison
superintendent to place him in a violent cellblock
in order to "teach him a lesson."
Most nonviolent offenders do in fact learn
a lesson: how to be violent. Ironically; we
spend an average of $20,000 per year, per
inmate, teaching them this. For less than
that we could be sending every nonviolent
offender to college.
None of us, including prison staff, should
accept violence as a fact of prison life,
and it would be easy not to. We could designate
certain facilities as zero-violence areas
and allow inmates to live there as long as
they don't commit-or even threaten to commit-a
single violent act. The great majority of
prisoners would sign up for such a place,
I can assure you. Only about 10 percent of
the prison population sets the terrorist tone
for most institutions, and they are able to
do that because the administration gives no
support to the 90 percent of inmates who just
want to do their time, improve themselves
in some way, and get out alive.
To make matters worse, in most prisons when
an inmate is threatened he or she is the one
who gets locked up in a little cell for twenty-four
hours a day, while those doing the threatening
remain in the open population. We must revise
this practice and begin to expect prisoners
to be nonviolent. And we need to support them
in this by offering conflict-resolution trainings
such as the 'Alternatives to Violence"
programs currently being conducted by and
for convicts around the country. Such trainings
should be required for all prisoners and staff.
Regain compassion and respect for those who
Over the past twenty years, we have increasingly
legitimized cruelty and callousness in response
to the cruelty and callousness of criminals.
And with the recent elections and new crime
bills, we are rushing even further down this
low road. In a number of prisons across the
country we have reduced or eliminated the
opportunity for inmates to earn college degrees,
clamped down on family visits, and restricted
access to books and magazines. And now there
is even a growing public sentiment to strip
prisons of televisions and exercise facilities.
It's as if we want to make sure inmates are
miserable every second of the day. We no longer
want them to get their lives together. We
just want them to suffer In the long run,
however, this approach will not make us happy,
nor will it keep our children safe from crime.
In fact, as I see it, this vengeful attitude
may actually be leading our young people toward
violence. The peak age for violent crime in
America is now eighteen, and it's edging downward
every year. Our children sense that it's all
right to be mean and violent toward people
they don't like. They are not learning compassion
or reconciliation. Don't expect a youngster
to be able to master the difference between
an enemy you define and an enemy he or she
Taking the "high road" does not
mean being lenient toward criminals. I'm certainly
not advocating that we open the prison doors
and let everybody out. In fact, I feel that
there are many types of behavior that can
cause a person to yield his or her right to
stay in free society. But we need to work
intensively with people who break the law;
we have to structure our responses in ways
that show them that they have value, that
we believe in them, and that we need them.
We must relegate prison to the status of last
resort after all other measures have failed.
Allow for transformation, not merely rehabilitation.
Our ideas of rehabilitation usually revolve
around education, job skills, and counseling.
But many ex-cons have told me they left prison
merely better-educated and -skilled criminals.
Until they felt their connection and value
to others, nothing ever reached into their
hearts. Take this letter from a former inmate,
Dear Bo, Man, I went through a time of hating
you and Sita before I came to my senses. Let
me explain: When you met me in prison and
looked into my eyes, you didn't buy the evil
son of a bitch that I portrayed to the world.
I believed it myself. But you two looked at
me with respect. Man, I hated your guts for
that. I'm serious, I have never felt a worse
punishment than your respect. Cops and cons
could beat on me all day long, I was used
to that from the time I was a kid But for
somebody to see the good in me--man, that
was unbearable. It took a long time, but it
finally wore me down and I had to admit that
I'm basically a good person. I've been out
for three years now. Not even close to a life
of crime anymore. Thanks seems puny but thanks.
If we forget that in every criminal there
is a potential saint, we are dishonoring all
of the great spiritual traditions. Saul of
Tarsus persecuted and killed Christians before
becoming Saint Paul, author of much of the
New Testament. Valmiki, the revealer of the
Ramayana, was a highwayman, a robber, and
a murderer. Milarepa, one of the greatest
Tibetan Buddhist gurus, killed thirty- seven
people before he became a saint. Moses, who
led the Jews out of bondage in Egypt, began
his spiritual career by killing an Egyptian.
If we forget that Charles Manson is capable
of transformation, that doesn't reveal our
lack of confidence in Manson, it shows our
lack of confidence in our own scriptures.
We must remember that even the worst of us
Over the past twenty years I've had the privilege
of knowing thousands of people who did horrible
things and yet were able to transform their
lives. They may not have become saints, but
I have seen murderous rage gradually humbled
into compassion, lifelong racial bigotry replaced
by true brotherhood, and chronic selfishness
transformed into committed altruism. The promises
of every great spiritual tradition are indeed
true: Our deepest nature is good, not evil.
Join and support the restorative justice movement.
For decades our justice system has been run
according to the tenets of "retributive
justice," a model based on exile and
hatred. "Restorative justice" is
a far more promising approach. This model
holds that when a crime occurs, there's an
injury to the community; and that injury needs
to be healed. Restorative justice tries to
bring the offender back into the community;
if at all possible, rather than closing him
Whereas retributive justice immediately says
"Get the hell out of here!" when
someone commits a crime, restorative justice
says "Hey, get back in here! What are
you doing that for? Don't you know we need
you as one of the good people in this community?
What would your mama think?" It's an
entirely opposite approach, one that, I think,
would result in stronger and safer communities.
I'm not saying that every offender is ready
to be transformed into a good neighbor. Advocates
of restorative justice are not naive. Sadly,
prisons may be a necessary part of a restorative
justice system. But even so, prisons can be
environments that maximize opportunities for
the inmates to become decent and caring human
One of the more powerful initiatives within
the restorative justice movement is the creation
of victim-offender reconciliation programs
(VORPs), which bring offenders and victims
face to face. When offenders come out of those
meetings you hear them say things like: "I
feel so ashamed now of what I did, because
I never realized how much I affected someone
else's life," or "I never meant
to do that. I was just being selfish."
Meanwhile, some of the classic responses from
victims are: "I really wanted to go in
there hating those guys but I discovered they're
just people. They really weren't as bad as
I thought they'd be," or "I was
expecting to see someone evil, and in- stead
I saw somebody stupid." Such victim-offender
interaction humanizes both the injury and
the healing process.
What can you do? If you become the victim
of a crime, insist upon meeting your assailant.
Insist upon being involved with the process
of his or her restoration. Join or create
a VORP in your community. Tour your local
jail or prison to see first-hand what your
taxes pay for. Go in with a church group or
civic group to meet inmates. Become a pen
pal to a prisoner who is seeking to change
his or her life. Talk to your friends and
colleagues about employing ex-cons (in nationwide
surveys, most employers admit they won't hire
a person with a criminal record, so where
are they supposed to work?). Please reclaim
your power and your responsibility, because
the retributive system you have deferred to
is not serving your best interests.
Take the issue of crime and punishment personally.
I first became an activist in the '6Os during
the civil rights movement in the South and,
I can tell you, standing up against the Klan
was not the hardest stuff. Nearly everybody
was against the Klan. The activism that took
the most courage was raising the consciousness
of our own friends and families. The same
goes for our attitudes toward prisoners today.
If somebody at your workplace says "I'm
glad they fried that animal," you have
to have the guts to say "Come on, Bob,
that's beneath you to talk like that."
And you have to be willing to be mocked as
a bleeding-heart liberal for doing so.
Just as with civil rights, and women's rights,
we have to recognize that the national shame
over our prison system is affecting us all,
and it's getting worse every day. This doesn't
mean that we all have to become crusaders
for prison reform, but we do have to be more
mindful of what we say and who and what we
We have to realize that we are all a part
of this problem. If you vote, if you pay taxes,
if you are afraid to walk alone at night,
you are already involved. And so we all must
make real changes-not just political ones,
but also in our personal attitudes and lifestyles.
Bo Lozoff is a director of the Human
Kindness Foundation and through its Prison
Ashram Project has been corresponding with
prisoners and conducting workshops in prisons
for more than twenty years.
This article was published in New Renaissance,
Vol.5 No. 3. The article originally appeared
in The New Age Journal (342 Western Av., Brighton,
MA USA) and is reprinted here with the permission
of the author. Copyright, Bo Lozoff