By Corinne Kirkland-Mercedes, CFCC Student Fellow 2013-2014
The United States has the highest incarceration rates of any country in the world. According to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (“NAACP”), 1 in every 31 adults or 3.2 percent of the population is under some form of correctional control.
To me these numbers are upsetting. With these rates, one could reasonably think that the threat of incarceration would deter criminal activity or at least produce a deep reduction in crime. Unfortunately this is not the case. So how do we begin to fix this problem?
As a Student Fellow with the Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children and the Courts (“CFCC”) at the University of Baltimore School of Law, I’ve become acquainted with a specialized tribunal called problem-solving courts. Despite being in my final year of law school, prior to this law school course, I had never heard about problem-solving courts. Unlike traditional courts, where prison sentences are used as a means to have criminals pay for their crimes, problem-solving courts focus on the underlying issues causing the crime. So for example, in a case where a defendant has committed a theft as a result of a drug addiction, in a problem- solving court the focus would be on how to restore this person through drug treatment. Whether the issue is substance abuse or mental illness, problem-solving courts use an integration of treatment services, close monitoring of the defendant, and collaboration with the community and other organizations to restore the defendant and strengthen the community.
While problem-solving courts are not a cure all, I believe that problem-solving courts are a step in the right direction. It is a form of therapeutic justice that should be utilized more frequently. Irrespective of our individual ideas on how to change the criminal justice system, I think we can all agree that something needs to change and soon. This sentiment is also reflected through the comprehensive review of the criminal justice system by the Department of Justice, commenced at the direction of the Attorney General earlier this year. The current rates of incarceration affect us all, and it’s an issue we should all be educated about. High incarceration rates hurt taxpayers, affect the economy as imprisoned non-violent offenders who could be working are unable to, and separate families. I’m not saying criminals should not be punished for their crimes, but let’s face it, the current system isn’t working. If we are to begin moving forward as a community and as a nation we need to address the underlying issues surrounding crime. I encourage us all to start the discussion. How do you think we should begin to change and improve the criminal justice system?