Criminal Justice: Is Our Head in the Sand

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Everyone knows the idiom to “bury one’s head in the sand,” where a person avoids reality or ignores the facts of the situation. Unfortunately, that may be what is going on with many in our society – legislators, law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, probation officers, and treatment providers – when they ignore the research on what works in changing behavior and reducing alcohol misuse.

We know that the vast majority of the people who consume alcohol, do so safely and responsibly. Unfortunately, that still leaves too many people who abuse alcohol, possibly resulting in criminal charges. Alcohol misuse is a significant contributor to crime. As an assistant prosecutor with almost 25 years of experience, I can’t think a single domestic violence case I’ve handled that didn’t have alcohol as a factor. Alcohol misuse is responsible for almost 1/3 of traffic fatalities in the United States, and it is not uncommon to find alcohol misuse involved in all varieties of criminal offenses.

Searching for a Quick Fix Isn’t a Fix

All too often we search for a quick and easy answer to all of those horrific crimes and the harm they cause. What we know from the research is that no single solution will work; it must be a comprehensive approach. While punishment is a critical part of the justice system, so must be rehabilitation. Most people who commit crimes will be released from prison, and incarceration alone is unlikely to change the subsequent criminal behavior of offenders who chronically misuse alcohol. Many offenders have a variety of behavior issues that must be addressed to achieve true rehabilitation.

As a prime example, consider the deadly crime of DUI. In a study of repeat DUI offenders and the influences that impact them, the Division on Addiction, Cambridge Health Alliance, a teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School stated:

Many of these individuals have extensive histories of trauma and abuse. Many have significant family dysfunction, both in their families of origin and, perhaps consequently, in those they construct. A large number grew up in families where substance abuse was the norm and were exposed to substance use from a very young age. Many have significant emotional problems, and some have considered or attempted suicide in their past.1

The article continues on noting that these behaviors resulted from a lifetime history of trauma and emotional problems and that education or incarceration will not change those issues.

It takes a Comprehensive Approach
Yet, knowing that the cookie cutter approach doesn’t work, we continue to use it. We continue walking down that narrow path of incarceration to ending alcohol misuse even when the research says to take a different and broader path. I have spoken regularly with prosecutors, law enforcement officers, and judges who rely on what’s always been done and resist change. But decades of research now demonstrate that the most effective way to address offenders’ alcohol misuse is through a comprehensive program of sanctions, treatment and accountability.

There are a number of programs out there doing just that; holding offenders accountable and providing the needed treatment to address the underlying causes. Drug Courts, DWI Courts, Hawaii’s Opportunity with Enforcement, 24/7 and other programs are leading the way, proving that a comprehensive approach changes behavior and saves lives more effectively than a narrow vision of incarceration only. But it is slow going. The Justice System has been imprisoning people for centuries, so it must be the right thing to do, right? Wrong.

A Change of Circumstances
Thomas Jefferson once wrote:

I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regime of their barbarous ancestors.

The research now demonstrates what works and doesn’t work. With our jails and prisons overcrowded, we can no longer afford to put our heads in the sand. We have to advance our criminal justice “institution” and keep pace with the research. Evidence-based practices must become commonplace and have everyone looking for ways to improve the system.

Have some individuals seen the research and led the charge for change? Yes. President Obama as well as both chambers of Congress are talking criminal justice reform. Many states have reviewed their laws, examined what works and what doesn’t work, and implemented changes. But there is still a lot of work to be done. Too many people still ignore what the research demonstrates. They want to keep their head in the sand.

Change is never easy, however, it can be done. It starts with recognizing what works and then finding ways to implement those steps. It continues by speaking up and sharing the research. It is not easy to overcome centuries of inactivity, but the resulting change will bring forth a bright new future of changing behavior and saving lives.