Can there be successful reform to our criminal justice system?

I am incredibly passionate about reforming our justice system and I think focusing on prevention, or an upstream model, to tackle crime is a great solution. To begin the process of prevention work, the roots of the problem needs to be uncovered. Knowing the histories and contexts of our justice system unlocks understanding on how foundational beliefs shape the experience and outcome of individuals involved. When evaluating the process and results of the US system it is clear that the concept of justice is defined in a unique way. Who decides how a community measures justice? Digging for the truth reveals what this system is effective in achieving. Unfortunately, in the US, the origins explain an intentional pattern of harm: a system born out of oppression, control, and racism. This punitive system was merely a method to destroy communities of color and establish a nation based on individualism and capitalism. Now we see how those national values stand in opposition of true justice. 

The article “The Foundational Lawlessness of the Law Itself: Racial Criminalization & the Punitive Roots of Punishment in America”, tackles the topic of US Justice System reform. The topics discussed helped me recognize how the origins of our system make it almost impossible for reform. The author, Kahil Muhammad looks back at American history to discover how this society came to define the criminal and how a criminal was dealt with. This examination revealed that the US strategically criminalized certain identities: “As generation after generation of White colonists and later citizens moved West, the choice to define Native populations and Mexicans as savages or criminals by law, custom, and practice rationalized the eventual creation of the nation” (p. 109). The criminal system was created to punish communities of color for merely existing and to gain control. White settlers perpetuated the idea that “An individual’s deviance was a result of ‘cultural pathologies’ and bad parenting ensured delinquency and crime, to which policing and incarceration were the most appropriate responses” (Muhammad, p. 117). When looking back, “Criminal anthropologists assessed female deviance, in part, by subjects’ proximity, or distance from, Western ideals of femininity, morality, and virtue” (Muhammad, p. 112). These racist perspectives still remain to this day, as the justice system has failed to evolve, rather we see that “crime and punishment, in other words, emerged as the platform for the racial inequities established during the colonial era to flourish” (Muhammad, p. 109-110). Even outside of the adult justice system, we often see for Black youths that “The denial of the special protections of the juvenile court … reflected a pervasive view that Black youth were ‘presumed criminal’” (Muhammad, p. 113-114). The criminal justice system was created to enforce and uphold racist ideals. The system conceptualized the criminal as any person of color, and this stereotype persists. There is no justice for all in a system made to maintain white supremacy. 

Included in the article is a quote from the Union Major General Carl Schurz, “But although the freedman is no longer considered the property of the individual master, he is considered the slave of society, and all the independent state legislation will share the tendency to make him such.” He pointed out that although slavery was now illegal, the US found a way to legalize a new form of slavery. Years later this still remains the truth. Black men make up the majority of incarcerated individuals. The system that existed back then still exists now and because the intentions were to criminalize Black men this problem is very much alive and well. I found it interesting that “incarcerated White men saw themselves as Black-adjacent. ‘Some even identify themselves as marked by that history of racial discrimination in recognizing that anti-black lawmaking is behind the sweeping legislative changes that widened the net of the criminal justice system, eventually catching them”(Muhammad, p.111). It makes you question what it truly means to be “Black-adjacent”. It seems that in this context being Black is to be ‘unwanted’ in society or ‘deviant’. By existing in a Black body the US feeds you this message. And when White individuals feel this way, to them it is synonymous with Blackness.

In the book Changing Lenses: Restorative Justice for Our Times, the author is “convinced that much crime and violence is a way of asserting personal identity and power” and that the violence perpetrated by offenders “feeds on low self-confidence and fractured self-esteem”(Zehr, ch. 3). Similarly, the article “An Abolitionist View of Restorative Justice”, describes crime as a “communicative act, expressive conduct, ‘a clumsy attempt to say something’”(Ruggiero). If you are a part of a society that places negative labels on members of your race, they raise you to hate who you are.

If we follow the logic established by these authors, there is no question as to why crimes will be committed. There is also no question as to why people will reoffend. If the current solution further instills self hatred, the problem is perpetuated. Instead of searching for the root cause of the violence or crime in our society, the criminal justice system locks away the symptoms to the “failings of economic, political, or social systems, which consequently deters the reform of these systems” (Ruggiero). 

This same article discusses Durkheim’s theories on social order and presents three “Unity Patterns”. In my opinion, the most utopian patter is the Organic Unity Pattern which “is enacted when individuals develop feelings of reciprocity due to the role and social rewards they enjoy in relation to similarly satisfied individuals”(Ruggiero). If we strive for a society of community and social order, this is one healthy way to achieve it. Currently, we do not have this. Although it is a goal that may never be attained, it’s one I think we should strive for. There is no reciprocity and this seems like the true root cause of criminal behavior. The US Justice System fails to function because it perpetuates, instead of addressing the problem. 


Works Cited

Howard Zehr. (1995). Changing Lenses : Restorative Justice for Our Times. Herald Press.

Muhammad, K. G. (2022). The Foundational Lawlessness of the Law Itself: Racial 

Criminalization & the Punitive Roots of Punishment in America. Daedalus, 151(1), 107–120.

Vincenzo Ruggiero, An abolitionist view of restorative justice, International Journal of Law, 

Crime and Justice, Volume 39, Issue 2, 2011, Pages 100-110, ISSN 1756-0616, ( article/pii/S1756061611000279) 


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