Reforming the criminal justice system

Prison cells
Prison cells (Photo credit: Umanoide)

It’s usually wrong to harm people but punishment is an exception. Punishment involves harming someone. For example, if we send someone to prison, we’re harming them by taking away their freedom, if we give someone a fine, we’re harming them by taking away their money. But if people are actually guilty, this harm that we’re causing seems to be ok morally; our harming them seems justified. But what justifies punishment? If someone does something, is it ok to punish them? Is it ok to give the wrongdoer what they deserve, “an eye for an eye” a “tooth for a tooth?” Or if you harm someone, should you expect to be harmed in return?

Deterrence says that punishment is justified because it prevents people from doing bad things in the future. And the reason we can punish wrongdoers is because doing so protects society. It serves as a warning to both the wrongdoer and to anyone else who might be thinking about doing the same kind of thing. It signals that we, as a society, will not tolerate that kind of behaviour. Maybe punishment is justified because it has good consequences, and it results in a safer environment for everybody. Maybe punishment is justified because it provides an opportunity to reform the wrongdoer. When someone commits a crime, not only have they done something wrong, but there also seems to be something wrong with them, and therefore, punishment is a way to transform the perpetrator into a more productive member of society. If punishing them can bring about this change then it’s justified.  However, the next time you think that someone should be punished ask yourself, should they be punished because they deserve to suffer, or should they be punished if it will help prevent them from future wrongdoing or should they be punished to help them transform into a better person.

Reform of the criminal justice system has been trending for years in Trinidad and Tobago, and while some progress has been made, there are areas where much-needed improvement is required.  Is justice delayed, justice denied? If we look at the justice system from the litigant’s point of view, we will clearly see the many problems they are faced with daily. Litigants are faced with long waiting trial periods, some up to eight years or more before being tried. Some matters are delayed because of transportation issues where the government’s transportation system seemed ineffective. Witnesses would not show up to court because of the lengthy precession causing further delays in the trial which can often go on for years in the magistrate court and sometimes in the high court. Another frustration is the economic issues litigants, and their family members, face as they struggle with finances to be legally represented. Litigants are often faced with deteriorating prison conditions when remanded in custody and awaiting trial. Some of these conditions include infested prison cells, lack of proper bathroom facilities and overcrowded cells.

Individuals who experience a sanction as unfair and stigmatizing are more likely to react with shame and rage, which increases the chances of reoffending. For a punishment to achieve rehabilitative change it needs to be recognized as fair and as serving its purpose by the offender and oftentimes interventions aimed at rehabilitation is something done to people, rather than with them. Communicative punishment has proven to be more effective when the offender has a more active role in shaping his or her punishment, so that it becomes more meaningful and legitimate on an individual level.

Perhaps the most surprising thing we learned when we looked through decades of research was that rehabilitation programmes that provide cognitive therapy, aggression training and substance abuse treatment actually worked very well. They are shown to reduce offending between 18 and 60 percent. So, before we use punishment as retribution, as a deterrent or as rehabilitation we should first ask ourselves, what kind of outcome do I really want from this situation? Do I really want to punish, or do I prefer treatment?

Subrina Hall-Azih is a Trinidadian Educator residing in New York.

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