Incarceration Isn’t Always the Answer

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?

0 thoughts on “Incarceration Isn’t Always the Answer

  1. I agree– changes in the system are needed. As practicing attorneys, it will be important for us to be part of the educational process when we speak to our clients and their families as well as to other attorneys in our community. As Fellows, we have not only observed a problem solving court in action but we've delved deeply into the various models of problem solving courts. More people should be informed of this approach and the potential it has for restoring peace to our communities.

  2. I completely agree as well, the criminal justice system is broken. Drug treatment courts are certainty a way to address many of the issues. However, I think that much needs to be changed in the communities. Violence, drugs, and gangs are a norm for many cities and a way of life for far too many individuals. Working in the Baltimore City Schools it became apparent of the “system” that these children are living in. Third graders who curse and fight are learning this type of behavior from the homes that they live in. The drop out rates are high and rehabilitation is not the focus of our criminal justice system. Specialized courts are a great step but communities need to come together and stand up to the violence that they live around. Of course this is much easier said than done.

  3. One of my favorite classes has been learning about Problem Solving Courts! Like most of the class, learning about problem solving courts for the first time has been incredibly reassuring to see our justice system's commitment to helping individuals. To me these specialized courts truly embodied Therapeutic Jurisprudence that we've learned all semester. I was also surprised to see the various types of problem solving courts and even more pleased to hear the success rates and the implementation in various jurisdictions. These courts are great models in helping restoring individual's lives, communities and the faith in our legal system to be the healing agent that it is intended to be.

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